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Army Corps of Engineers announces plan that will reduce freshwater releases into St. Lucie Estuary

Rep. Brian Mast supports plan that triples flows south from Lake Okeechobee
Posted at 2:04 PM, Jul 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 18:11:06-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Monday they have selected a plan that will reduce freshwater discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary for at least the next 10 years.

Known as "Alternative CC," the preliminary announcement regarding their highly-anticipated plan could shape South Florida's environment for years to come.

The Army Corps said it will be a guide of when and where it releases water from Lake Okeechobee, replacing the current plan used by the agency.

Over the past few weeks, the Army Corps said it has received a significant amount of feedback on the water discharge plan known as the Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual (LOSOM).

The plan was one of five final options the Corps announced in May.

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Choosing the final plan was a matter of balancing needs of various stakeholders, and finding what benefits the most interests, such as the ecology of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, recreation, the environment for the St. Lucie Estuary, algal bloom risk and water quality concerns.

The Army Corps said "Alternative CC" best balances the needs of all stakeholders and communities across South Florida.

Army Corps Col. Andrew Kelly said the plan scored second best when looking at the environmental benefits to the St. Lucie Estuary.

Alternative CC, LOSOM Okeechobee water discharge map
The new plan would triple the water discharges to the south and reduce water into the St. Lucie Estuary by two-thirds.

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"Alternative CC" will not only reduce water releases to the St. Lucie Estuary and send more water south, but it will also send more water to the western part of Florida during the rainy season.

It will also give the Caloosahatchee River more of the water it needs during the dry season but some worry it will still get too much water during the wet season.

Also, communities to the south worry the plan sends more untreated, potentially toxic water their way, but the Army Corps said this plan will still be an overall improvement to the entire system.

John Maehl, Ecosystem Restoration Management manager in Martin County, was one of the hundreds of stakeholders who gave the Corps input into the final plan.

He said the "Alternative AA" plan would have been the best option for the St. Lucie Estuary but would have caused more harm in other areas, such as lake ecology.

John Maehl, Ecosystem Restoration Management manager in Martin County
John Maehl shares his thoughts on the Army Corps' water discharge plan.

"While there's not very many people who CC is their first choice, pretty much everybody has it in their second or third choice, so it just seems to be the best fit if you’re really trying to achieve balance," Maehl said.

Kelly said the priority was to "pick an array that does the most good for the most people."

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., reiterated Monday his support for "Alternative CC," which would cut Lake Okeechobee releases east to the St. Lucie Estuary by about two-thirds.

US Rep. Brian Mast speaks at Port Mayaca on June 1, 2021
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast speaks at Port Mayaca on June 1, 2021, to call on the U.S. Army Corps to stop harmful water discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee and Lake Worth Lagoon.

The plan also increases the percentage of time the Caloosahatchee River receives optimal flow levels and nearly eliminates regulatory discharges to the Lake Worth Lagoon, Mast's office said.

Mast and other community leaders from across Florida came together in June to call on the Army Corps of Engineers to select a balanced water release schedule from Lake Okeechobee.

Critics of alternative CC said while the Caloosahatchee River needs water during the dry season, they worry the river will still get too much water during the rainy season. They also feel the plan does not eliminate the risk for algae blooms.

Kelly acknowledged the ongoing algal bloom risk.

In Palm Beach County, County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said the following about the plan:

"While PBC is happy to hear the proposed decision to treat the Lake Worth Lagoon as an estuary in some of the modeling, none of the proposed plans are currently supported by our county staff…CC doesn't benefit our needs, allows for the St. Lucie basin to back pump their local runoff into the Lake and puts nearly the entire remaining "shared adversity" on the Caloosahatchee Basin."

LOSOM will be optimized for several more months, tweaking the plan to consider ways to better balance the advantages and disadvantages across the board for all stakeholders.

It will face final approval in November to be implemented in 2022 after the completion of the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike.