More than 1,100 Friends of the Everglades like you sent messages to the Army Corps of Engineers in recent weeks, asking for specific improvements to the new Lake Okeechobee plan that’s being developed.

Today, we saw where the Army Corps took our advice, and where we still have work to do.

During a virtual meeting, Corps officials unveiled new details of the preferred alternative for the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM — the “playbook” for managing the lake in the decade to come.

Col. Andrew Kelly, who is leading the effort, articulated goals for how the plan, previously known as “Alternative CC,” will be optimized and deliver benefits to all stakeholders. Friends of the Everglades previously made three specific requests:

  1. Maximize environmentally beneficial flows south from Lake O to the Everglades during all lake stages, until the lake reaches the Water Shortage Management Band; this could be accomplished by removing “Zone F,” where flows might otherwise be constrained.
  2. Use the added storage capacity in the lake afforded by repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike to reduce high-volume discharges to the Caloosahatchee estuary – and maintain zero discharges to the St. Lucie estuary in Zone D, as proposed in “Alternative CC.”
  3. Incorporate additional flexibility into LOSOM to allow the Corps to avoid discharging east or west when doing so would risk transferring toxic algae blooms to populated communities.

All our wishes didn’t come true. The Corps stopped short of removing Zone F, though Corps officials said they hope to send more water south. And there was no commitment to maintaining zero discharges to the St. Lucie in Zone D.

This said, Corps officials signaled a broad commitment to providing relief to the St. Lucie, saying discharges would be ramped up to the estuary (above what was in CC) only as a “last resort.” It’s up to us to make sure they keep that promise.

Some on Florida’s west coast voiced an understandable concern that the plan won’t relieve enough stress on the Caloosahatchee estuary, which stands to see more damaging releases under LOSOM than under the previous lake management plan, LORS 2008. And Big Sugar, which seeks to maximize water supply to ensure bumper crop yields in the Everglades Agricultural Area, complained because their position wasn’t deemed a paramount priority.

Yet during today’s meeting, the Army Corps voiced a commitment to agricultural water supply advocates, saying it will be as good — or even better — than the baseline “Alternative CC” proposal.

We think that’s a mistake. Big Sugar has not demonstrated a need for more water, especially when keeping the lake artificially high to ensure agricultural water supply increases the likelihood of toxic discharges to the northern estuaries.

This mustn’t be an either-or battle between the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie. Both can benefit by sending as much clean water south as possible and by incorporating operational flexibility into the plan to allow the Corps to curtail discharges when algae is present on the lake. The Corps also signaled a willingness to hold Lake O higher to bring relief to the Caloosahatchee Estuary. That may be necessary.

As the Corps moves forward on the Lake O plan officials must keep their eye on the prize: A new system that prioritizes public health and ecosystems. We’ll continue to follow the LOSOM process, and we’ll keep you updated as we get a clearer picture of what “optimization” means for everyone.