As the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual process enters the next phase of development, the fight is less about how the plan is written — but whose finger is on the trigger.
That was laid bare today, during the Army Corps of Engineers’ latest meeting on the lake plan.
In recent weeks advocates for “water supply” — many of them sympathetic to Big Sugar and other agricultural interests south of Lake Okeechobee — have insisted the state of Florida, rather than the Army Corps of Engineers, must have the ultimate say in how the system is operated when the water in the lake drops near the “water shortage management band.”
When the water level falls below the water shortage management band, users may need to cut back. It’s obviously an important benchmark for agriculture and the millions of municipal water users who rely on the lake for drinking water. And in years past, water managers have kept water levels well above this band in order to provide “insurance” to water users.
The problem is, keeping extra water in the lake “just in case” — largely for hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane — means that when the summer rains come, the lake fills up faster. That can lead to damaging high-water levels in the lake, and toxic discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon.
In other words, Big Sugar’s “insurance” is often an assurance of harm to the estuaries, the southern Everglades and the lake itself.
Friends of the Everglades believes water managers, be they state or federal, should not keep extra water in the lake during non-drought conditions, and should maximize beneficial flows west to the Caloosahatchee and south to the Everglades until Lake O hits the the water shortage management line. There’s no good reason to cut those beneficial flows in order to keep the lake higher.
But the push from Big Sugar to ensure state, not federal water managers get the final say seems rooted in a desire to keep more water in the lake. State officials may prove to be more compliant, more “flexible,” than the feds. The governor-appointed South Florida Water Management District leadership is certainly more susceptible to political pressure than the Army Corps. Today’s District leaders may prioritize the environment, but that could change.
All insurance has a cost.
Big Sugar and its allies believe someone else should pay the price.
We still have a chance to get LOSOM right by putting public health and the environment above this powerful industry.
Friends of the Everglades Reaction:
The following comments were made by Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples during the Army Corps of Engineers’ LOSOM Project Delivery Team meeting on Jan 12, 2022:
Two important questions loom large as the Army Corps of Engineers enters its final phase of writing the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will determine when and where water moves in South Florida for the next decade:
QUESTION 1: When Lake Okeechobee’s water levels drop during the dry season — but before we get to water-shortage conditions — should LOSOM reduce beneficial environmental flows to the Everglades and Caloosahatchee Estuary?
OUR ANSWER: No. Doing so would harm the Caloosahatchee and southern Everglades by depriving these fragile ecosystems, and the people who depend on them, of needed freshwater. It also would keep the lake higher than necessary — which is detrimental to the health of Lake O, which virtually every stakeholder agrees is the biggest loser in LOSOM.
Reducing beneficial flows south and west also would increase the risk of rainy season toxic discharges from the lake to the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Lake Worth Lagoon. When we’re in water-shortage conditions, it’s fair game to reduce environmental flows. But not when we’re above it.
QUESTION 2: As Lake Okeechobee levels get lower during the dry season, who should have the power to determine where water flows: the Army Corps of Engineers or the state of Florida?
OUR ANSWER: Flexibility is needed in LOSOM — but we need guardrails from the federal government to protect environmental flows. The political pressure in Florida to over-deliver for agricultural water supply in the EAA is strong. We might have supportive SFWMD leadership that prioritizes environmental needs now, but that could change in the future.
We have not seen evidence of diminished crop yields in the EAA under the existing Lake O plan. So it’s important that the Army Corps not let LOSOM become susceptible to political pressure to over-prioritize water supply, at the expense of the natural environment and public health.
Let’s be honest: Giving control to the state at 1.5 feet above the Water Shortage Management Line, as requested by the South Florida Water Management District, would be creating a new band in LOSOM.
I’ll conclude by noting that Lake Okeechobee Recovery Mode remains a big wildcard for the northern estuaries. It could wipe out any relief from Lake O regulatory releases to the northern estuaries during years when it is implemented. The results could be devastating, even if Recovery Mode is infrequent.
Underpinning the past three years of work on LOSOM is a desire to protect public health by reducing toxic-algae laden discharges to populated areas. By maximizing beneficial environmental flows all the way to the Water Shortage Management Band, we can help lower the lake ahead of the rainy season … and prevent such risks.