It’s crunch time.
In less than a month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will pick a tentative plan for the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.
It’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity to finally and dramatically improve the way water is managed in South Florida — and mitigate the Sunshine State’s worsening toxic algae crisis.
On June 17 the “LOSOM” Project Delivery Team and members of the public, including Friends of the Everglades, examined the latest computer modeling data showing how the new system might work.
From tens of thousands of computer models, Corps engineers have selected six possible alternatives: AA, BB, CC, DD, EE1 and EE2.
The Army Corps’ goal is to create an equitable plan that reduces damaging discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon; improves the ecology of Lake Okeechobee; bolsters the water supply for the Everglades Agricultural Area and communities south of the lake; moves more water south to the Everglades; and enhances recreation and navigation on the lake.
It’s tough to serve so many masters. But Friends of the Everglades, along with a growing coalition of environmental and business groups and governmental partners, has identified an improved alternative CC as the best choice.
And the latest data strengthens the case.
According to the Corps’ analysis, CC shows superior performance for 9 out of 10 metrics measured.
It’s unparalleled in its combined benefits to both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. It sends more water south than all but one other plan; and would reduce the risk of blue-green algal blooms in the estuaries between May and August.
It performs admirably for recreation. And it even bests the current operating schedule in terms of the South Florida environment, and water supply for the Lake Okeechobee Service Area and Seminole Tribe of Florida.
There are tradeoffs. Like some other alternatives, CC would raise the water level in Lake Okeechobee to minimize discharges. And Friends of the Everglades would still like to see key improvements to allow for even more water to go south and further reduce the risk of harmful regulatory releases to the northern estuaries — which could dramatically decrease the chance of harmful algal bloom from the lake exploding in our fragile coastal waters.
Other interests back other plans. Florida’s powerful sugar industry supports plan BB, which would guarantee the Everglades Agricultural Area virtually all the water it could ever want for irrigation. But BB performs dramatically worse for the northern estuaries, and sends significantly less water south to the Everglades.
The other alternatives excel in some areas, while falling short in others. There is no “perfect” alternative among the remaining LOSOM plans.
But after so many years of inequity, with the scale tilted in favor of the agricultural interests south of Lake Okeechobee, the Corps — along with the South Florida Water Management District, a key partner in moving water south to the Stormwater Treatment Areas — has a chance to switch gears and embrace a better, more equitable plan that serves everyone.
The Corps will host three more online gatherings, open to the public, prior to selecting a tentative alternative on July 16: LOSOM PDT (Project Delivery Team) meetings will be held from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22, and Wednesday, June 30. On July 7, each agency represented on the PDT will present their preferred alternative.
The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board will hold its own LOSOM workshop at 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 29, at district headquarters in West Palm Beach.
Come Aug. 4, the Corps plans to select its final preferred alternative.
The two-year LOSOM process is finally nearing completion.
And the future of Florida’s iconic waters — and its people— hangs in the balance.