PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Palm Beach County commissioners voiced their questions and concerns Tuesday with the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the plan for Lake Okeechobee water management.
The meeting was held at the county government building and featured an opportunity for public comment, which included U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla.
The Corps announced last week it selected a plan known as "Alternative CC" as the guide for how it will release water from Lake Okeechobee for the next 10 years.
The plan will cut lake releases east to the St. Lucie Estuary by about two-thirds, but some worry it doesn't do enough to address the potential for toxic algae blooms.
Col. Andrew Kelly, the Jacksonville District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spoke at the meeting and laid out the agency's decision to choose the "Alternative CC" plan.
"The way we manage the lake, and the timing of those releases is critically important," Kelly told reporters outside the chamber.
The colonel spoke directly to Palm Beach County commissioners about the preliminary plan selected to manage Lake Okeechobee and the water releases.
"One thing we noticed this year, algae appeared earlier than normal," Kelly said.
Representatives from the Army Corps faced a variety of questions from commissioners ranging from water quality and supply concerns for Palm Beach County to the completion of the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Kelly said while water releases are mainly to control lake flooding, water discharges toward Palm Beach County are primarily for water supply, such as the city of West Palm Beach.
"In periods of when the algae tends to grow on the lake are times we prefer not to make releases," Kelly said. "At some point there are needs and sometimes the municipalities and systems use water from the regional system at the time of need regardless of what's on the water," Kelly said.
Mast spoke at the meeting and reiterated his push to end all freshwater discharges into the east coast of Florida, saying he wanted the Army Corps to achieve a plan that that begins from a "place of do no harm."
"You can't give out the benefits of Lake Okeechobee to all these different communities without starting at the point that you don't hurt other communities in order to do it," Mast said.
Several mayors from western Palm Beach County communities also expressed their priorities.
Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson said western communities need to be heard also about lake management.
"If it gets too high, it causes a lot of erosion problems for us. If it's too low, you understand, then boaters and people can't go out there," Wilson said. "The farmers need the water to get the crops going."
Kelly is visiting locations and stakeholders throughout the state as the Army Corps takes feedback as the plan is fine-tuned before it is finalized.
The water discharge plan is expected to be implemented in late 2022 after the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike project.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents the Glades region, said ahead of Tuesday's meeting that none of the plans were perfect, and this one does have some positives for Palm Beach County.
"None of them, the five (finalists) that were chosen, had a good benefit to Palm Beach County overall. Now there are pieces that we like. We like that the Lake Worth Lagoon is finally going to be treated in the same fashion as the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee Estuary, be treated as an estuary, I'm sorry. So that's a good thing," McKinlay said.
She said she would have liked the Army Corps to take Palm Beach County leaders' input into greater consideration and hopes they come away from Tuesday's meeting focused on the county's concerns.
"I hope that some of our county stakeholders come and voice their opinions, and let the Corp know how they feel about it, and I hope that the Corp, we've got a tremendously talented staff at the county, I hope they take our concerns seriously and incorporated ours into the final tweaking of this plan before ultimately releasing it into the final format sometime this year," McKinlay said. "It's water supply, it's flood protection for Palm Beach County, the city of West Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, but this schedule affects 16 counties and almost 14 million people in the state of Florida. We want to make sure that any plan that is selected doesn't have great flexibility to deviate from the plan. We worry about water supply during dry season, and then on the other hand, we worry about the lake's ecology, keeping the levels too high will kill the lake. There are recreational benefits, there are health benefits to that, there is just a very big balancing act that the Corps has to deal with here."