The following comments were made by Friends of the Everglades executive director Eve Samples during the October 28, 2021 LOSOM listening session hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps of Engineers is nearing the end of a more than two-year effort to develop the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), a new plan that will dictate when and where water moves for the next decade. The LOSOM process began in the aftermath of the toxic-algae crises that plagued the northern estuaries in 2013, 2016 and 2018, posing a threat to public health. Reducing harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges that trigger such algae blooms has been a top priority for Floridians in LOSOM. It must remain a top priority for the Army Corps in the home stretch of the process.

In the coming days, the Army Corps will select a final plan that it will use to build out the detailed LOSOM playbook — and it must choose wisely. In July, the Corps identified Alternative CC as its preferred alternative for LOSOM, and Friends of the Everglades agreed that was the right starting point. Alternative CC needed to be “optimized” to reduce damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee River and increase flows to Everglades National Park. However, the “optimized” versions of CC that the Army Corps unveiled on Oct. 26, 2021, revealed a doubling of Lake Okeechobee releases to the St. Lucie Estuary compared to Alternative CC. That’s not optimization.

Friends of the Everglades is concerned that the Army Corps has guaranteed water supply advocates — particularly sugarcane farmers south of Lake Okeechobee — a more favorable starting place for LOSOM. The Army Corps promised their water supply would not get worse than what was in Plan CC. The northern estuaries and other environmental stakeholders have not been granted such preferential treatment. This strikes us as arbitrary, but the good news is there’s still time to adjust course.

The Army Corps indicated Thursday it will consider plans beyond the eight model runs presented Oct. 26. We can do better. We can alleviate harm to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and send more water south to the Everglades while meeting, or coming close to meeting, the Corps’ other LOSOM objectives.

The existing Lake Okeechobee plan, LORS 2008, has been incredibly damaging for the estuaries, for public health, for the Everglades and Florida Bay. We can’t afford to live any longer with LORS 2008 than we absolutely have to — so it’s critical to get LOSOM done. We encourage the Army Corps to do so by choosing a plan that comes closer to maintaining CC-level performance for the St. Lucie Estuary, while reducing harm to the Caloosahatchee. We also call on the Army Corps to eliminate the proposed sub-zones in Zone D that would hold water in Lake Okeechobee for “conservation” of water supply. That’s unnecessary, and it stands to harm the estuaries, Everglades and Florida Bay.

No near-term decision is more important to the future of Florida’s water than LOSOM. It’s critical that we get it right.