A plan largely supported by South Florida’s environmental groups won favor from the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday as it designs a blueprint for managing Lake Okeechobee for at least the next decade.
Losers in the proposal on how and when water will be released from the wellspring of the Everglades are the lake itself, which could be held at higher levels longer, and the Caloosahatchee River, which would see harmful discharges increase under a strict interpretation of so-called plan “CC.”
But Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville District, promised the plan still faces modifications that he expects will improve the situation for oysters in the Caloosahatchee and eelgrass in Lake Okeechobee.
“This was an important decision capstoning two-plus years of work to get to this point,” Kelly said. “We have to figure out how to guiderail the optimization so we can get the best we can out of the plan.”
Army Corps’ new Lake O plan replaces 2008 version
About 300 people attended an online meeting Monday where the Corps made its announcement on the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM. It will replace the current plan, which was written in 2008 after it was realized the Herbert Hoover Dike was in danger of failing and needed to be hardened.
The $2 billion repair to the dike is scheduled to be finished next year with the new lake management plan expected to be in operation by the end of 2022.
Groups including the Everglades Foundation, Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Oceanographic Society and the Indian River Keeper lauded the Corps’ choice with the caveat that tweaks are still needed before a plan is finalized in mid-October.
“Although this plan still needs to be optimized to deliver more water south to the Everglades during the dry season, alternative CC is the ideal starting point to a more balanced and fair management of the public’s water,” said Steve Davis, chief science officer of the Everglades Foundation.
The plan reduces harmful discharges to the St. Lucie Estuary, which wants no water from Lake Okeechobee, and increases flows to the thirsty Everglades and Florida Bay by about 52% during the dry season.
What the new Lake O plan means for Palm Beach County
A win for Palm Beach County includes a change in how the Lake Worth Lagoon will be treated. Under the new operating manual, the lagoon would be considered an estuary instead of a flood control outlet where excess lake water could be dumped indiscriminately.
Utilities, farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, and water supply users, including the City of West Palm Beach, still have concerns about how their water allotment will be affected by the new operating plan.
Palm Beach County did not endorse a plan. The City of West Palm Beach said in a July 13 letter to the Corps that the there was “no meaningful” evaluation of the northern part of the county where its water supply – Grassy Waters Preserve – is located. Grassy Waters also feeds the Loxahatchee River during the dry season.
“I understand people say there has been a lot of time spent on this but we didn’t see all the results until a month ago and we can see gaping holes for the northern Palm Beach County area that impacts our water supply and that of the Loxahatchee River,” said Poonam Kalkat, West Palm Beach director of public utilities.
In a statement, US Sugar said that farmers around Lake Okeechobee believe the plan CC “falls short and must be ‘optimized’ in order to meet its legally authorized purposes.”
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Environmental Consultant Rebecca Elliott said at a July 12 meeting that plan BB – a management schedule supported by agriculture interests and some water users – comes closest to meeting state water supply requirements.
Spokespeople for the department, which is led by Democrat agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried, said Monday it is not supporting any plan but was asked for a technical review of the models.
“As a starting point, it is a balanced plan for most objectives,” Elliot said July 12 about plan BB. “As we have been talking about, there are tradeoffs involved.”
South Florida Water Management District officials presented a plan last week that they said is an example of how plan CC could be fine-tuned.
Tommy Strowd, executive director of Lake Worth Drainage District, said Monday he was more comfortable with the district’s proposal but would prefer water allotments be restored to pre-2008 levels.
How the Lake O plan will affect the lake level
The current Lake Okeechobee schedule reduced the optimal lake level to between 12.5 feet above sea level and 15.5 feet, and increased water shortage risks from once every 10 years to once every six years.
The proposed plan would extend the amount of time the lake is higher than what is healthy for its ecology, including as much as 17 feet above sea level.
“When you hit 17, you know the lake has really been whacked hard,” said Audubon Florida scientist Paul Gray in a meeting last week. “Scientists think there’s harm at 15 to 15.5 feet. We all agree 16 is trouble.”
Kelly said fine-tuning the plan for Lake Okeechobee could mean looking at recovery periods where the lake would be kept at its healthiest level to give it a chance to bounce back from too high or too low water levels.
The new Lake Okeechobee plan will likely be used for a decade with the next rewrite triggered by the completion of the 10,500-acre Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir. The reservoir, which is scheduled to be finished in 2027, is being constructed in southwestern Palm Beach County.