It’s not all we hoped for.
But ultimately, it’s better than what we have now.
On Tuesday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its pick for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual; the new playbook will guide lake management for a decade to come.
Model 260467 would discharge an average of 117,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie estuary every year. The good news is that’s 37% less than what might have been discharged had the Corps taken no action and continued to utilize the existing lake schedule.
The bad news? It’s a 63% increase over the 72,000 acre-feet per year originally proposed in the Corps’ “preferred alternative,” Plan CC.
After selecting Plan CC in July, the Corps set out to “optimize” it — and the St. Lucie lost ground.
The number of days when the lake is above or around 17 feet and the estuary is blasted by high-volume discharges would actually exceed what we would get under the current lake plan. Some other key metrics show an improvement, though all fall short of what Plan CC would have delivered.
To be sure, there are other benefits. The amount of water sent south to the Everglades will triple under LOSOM. The Caloosahatchee estuary will see an increase in optimal flows and a decrease in damaging discharges from the lake. We applaud these changes, having advocated the Corps improve outcomes for the Caloosahatchee via the optimization process.
Water supply for municipal and agricultural users south of Lake Okeechobee will improve — more than necessary, in our view. The lake itself, however, could see more time above 16, even 17 feet, which will have an impact on submerged aquatic vegetation, and could trigger “lake recovery mode,” which means more water discharged to the estuaries.
Another problem: LOSOM envisions a “conservation mode” that would cut off helpful flows to the Everglades and Caloosahatchee during dry periods in order to stockpile water for sugarcane corporations south of the lake — resulting in more damaging discharges east and west during the wet season.
Throughout the LOSOM process, Corps officials said they were seeking a balanced plan.
But this doesn’t look like “balance” to us.
We know exposure to toxic algae from Lake Okeechobee discharges can cause troubling short-term and long-term health issues. Long-term exposure has been linked to liver disease and is suspected of causing neurological ailments such as ALS and Parkinson’s.
That’s why prioritizing public health and ecosystems over irrigation and drainage for Big Sugar in the new Lake O management plan is so important.
We applaud the Corps’ two-plus years of hard work in formulating the new lake schedule, the transparency with which it operated and willingness to listen to stakeholders.
But more work is needed to ensure LOSOM protects Florida’s people and ecosystems as much as it protects irrigation and drainage for hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane fields.
We hope the Army Corps, and South Florida Water Management District, are up to the task.