ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — Where will Lake Okeechobee water be released for the next decade or more?
We now know the final plan for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM.
LOSOM will replace the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule from 2008 and serve as the guideline for the Army Corps to determine where, when, and how much water it releases to the east, west, and south of Lake Okeechobee during the dry and wet season.
Multiple factors such as weather, lake height, estuary conditions, and water supply needs will impact the release decisions, but overall, releases to the east into the St. Lucie Estuary will decrease overall by about 35%, according to Indian Riverkeeper Executive Director, Mike Connor.
Connor said that while that is a step in the right direction, the Corps first considered a plan that would have cut releases by more than 60%.
Tuesday’s announcement was the result of several months of “optimizing” that plan, which ended up decreasing the potential cuts to releases to the east.
“We need not one drop, and we’ve been fighting for a long time here for zero, stop the discharges, no lake water. We didn’t get that wish today,” Connor said.
For numerous years, Lake Okeechobee releases were blamed for toxic blue-green algae blooms that coated the St. Lucie River and parts of the Caloosahatchee River. Scientists also say the blooms have public health impacts, and an influx of freshwater with excess nutrients has hurt marine life and seagrass growth.
The new LOSOM plan will send significantly more water to the south and give the Caloosahatchee River more water than it needs during the dry season.
The Army Corps said overall, LOSOM is a significant improvement in accomplishing balance for all stakeholders compared to LORS 08.
Col. James Booth explained the following summary of changes:
- Eliminate lake releases to the St. Lucie under normal conditions, sending zero lake water to the East 95% of the time. Under 2008 LORS, releases east were at zero only 37% of the time and the flows could reach 1,800 cubic feet per second even in the low sub-band.
- Eliminate stressful releases to the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee under normal conditions and provide lake flows that are compatible with estuarine ecology as recommended by RECOVER.
- Increase flows south to the Central Everglades to an average annual of 200,000 acre-feet per year and preserve the opportunity to release water all the way to the water shortage management line in coordination with the SFWMD.
- Provide better water supply for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Lake Okeechobee Service Area, and the Lower East Coast Service Areas than LORS 2008 currently provides.
- Ensure the safety of the 9.3 million people of South Florida who rely on the Herbert Hoover Dike for flood protection.
- Provide compatible lake operations as the C-44 and C-43 reservoirs come online.
- Reduce damaging dry downs on Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Worth Waterkeeper Reinaldo Diaz agreed with Connor, wishing releases were being more drastically cut to the east. “We’re walking toward the finish line when we really should be going at a full sprint,” Diaz said, wanting to see more done to prevent the threat of toxic blooms or further harm to the Lake Worth Lagoon and watershed.
U.S Congressman Brian Mast released the following statement, saying in part:
“There is good and bad news from today:
The good news is that under the proposed plan more water can flow south into the Everglades while less water will likely flow east and west during the summer months when the risk of algal blooms is highest. This is an improvement on the very bad status quo.
“At the same time, though, this plan falls far short of truly rebalancing the scales of justice when it comes to water management in Florida. Critics will say that that level of progress is impossible until more infrastructure is built, but that’s bullshit. The truth is that, in the final months of this process, the Army Corps chose to prioritize increased water supply for sugarcane over the health of the estuaries and Lake Okeechobee, and as a result, this plan still has the potential to send unacceptable volumes of toxic water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. We need to build more water infrastructure in South Florida, but we also need more equitable operations to match it.
“All of that means that, under this new plan, the sugar industry will remain the largest benefactor, receiving hundreds of billions of gallons of guaranteed water to irrigate their crops. Meanwhile, the communities on Florida’s East and West coasts will remain the biggest losers being forced to live under the constant threat of polluted toxic water, guacamole-thick algal blooms and severe public health risks.
The Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg also released the following statement, saying in part:
“This is the first time since 2008 that water managers are changing their approach in managing Lake Okeechobee’s water, and it is a major improvement from the status quo for the overwhelming majority of Floridians. This plan will significantly reduce harmful discharges to our east and west coasts and increase water flow south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, particularly in the dry season.
“While the long-term solution to South Florida’s complex water problems and the full elimination of discharges from the lake will only happen with new water infrastructure like the Everglades reservoir, this is a significant step toward a more balanced approach to managing the lake water that Floridians and our state rely on.”
The Corps said the plan announced Tuesday will still go through an environmental impact study, amongst other final reviews. It is set to be operational after the completion of the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike in late 2022 or into early 2023.