An improvement, but not a cure-all

For more than three years, Friends of the Everglades has advocated for a better Lake Okeechobee management plan — one that prioritizes public health and prevents the kind of toxic-algae crisis that devastated Florida in 2018 and years prior.

We now have a detailed draft of the new plan, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers. In a nutshell: The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) will be an improvement over the existing plan — but, make no mistake, LOSOM will not be a cure-all.

LOSOM will reduce, but not stop harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. It will increase flows south to the Everglades, but not enough to make a substantial improvement in the ecology of Everglades National Park.

The Army Corps projects the following environmental benefits from LOSOM:

  • 62% reduction in damaging or stressful Lake O events to the Caloosahatchee Estuary
  • 79% reduction in damaging or stressful Lake O events to the St. Lucie Estuary
  • Tripling of flows south to the southern Everglades, to 150,000 acre feet a year — an amount the Corps says will provide only “negligible to minor long-term beneficial effects.”

A big caveat: These numbers are all based on scientific models. And, as the old saying goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Will future weather conditions look like the past? Not if widely accepted climate predictions hold up. So the actual benefits of LOSOM could look very different than what’s projected.

So that’s the “good” news. There’s also bad news.

Lake Okeechobee’s ecology will suffer under the new Lake Okeechobee plan, due to higher lake levels for more months of the year. Snail kite habitat is a particular concern.

To address that problem, the Corps is proposing a Lake Okeechobee “Recovery Mode” that would draw lake levels down to let submerged aquatic vegetation recover. However, that could create a whole other problem: Aggressively drawing down Lake O is likely to require damaging, high-volume releases to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. In other words, those “recovery” years for the lake could result in devastating years for the northern estuaries. That’s not a good trade-off.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the billionaire-backed sugarcane farms south of Lake Okeechobee will continue to have their water supply protected under LOSOM, with expected “moderate long-term beneficial effects.” The Army Corps of Engineers and its state partner, the South Florida Water Management District, have made sure of that.

The Army Corps is inviting the public to attend a series of virtual meetings starting Aug. 9, 2022, and to submit comments on LOSOM by Sept. 12. If you’d like to join the meetings or submit feedback, you can find detailed information here.

On Aug. 18, Friends of the Everglades will host Col. James Booth and Tim Gysan of the Army Corps for a livestream discussion about the new Lake O plan. Register here to join this free event.