The Army Corps of Engineers has chosen the new Lake Okeechobee water management plan, called a System Operating Manual (LOSOM), to improve the health and resilience of Lake Okeechobee, the estuaries to the east and west, the Everglades, and urban and agricultural water supply.
Lake Okeechobee is the historical gatekeeper between the northern watershed that starts near Orlando and the Everglades through Florida Bay to the south. Historically, rain that fell between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee would cover the land and drain slowly through the Kissimmee Basin to the lake. This slow steady inflow meant Lake Okeechobee would overflow its southern boundary most of the time, replenishing the Everglades with freshwater. During dry periods the flow would slow, allowing the Everglades to dry down, usually during the winter season.
The Army Corps of Engineers, founded in 1802, was first asked to alter South Florida’s drainage in the early 20th century. As a result of alterations to the ecosystem and human users of Lake O’s water, the flow no longer functions in this way. Rather, outflow water now is artificially shunted to the coasts at unnatural times of the year, leaving the estuaries overloaded with freshwater and the Everglades parched.
“Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades,” says Kelly Cox, Director of Everglades Policy for Audubon Florida. “It serves an important ecological function for the entire system. In order to achieve the most balanced outcomes with the new Lake O schedule, we have to remember that the Everglades is interconnected from its headwaters to Florida Bay and should be managed as such.”
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, “The purpose of this effort is to reevaluate and define operations for the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule that take into account additional infrastructure that will soon be operational. The additional infrastructure that will be taken into consideration includes the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation, Kissimmee River Restoration Project, as well as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir and C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area.”
The Corps currently uses the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, established in 2008, to manage lake levels between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.
After several years of public meetings and schedule development, the Corps recently released six possible water management alternatives, ultimately choosing one called “CC.”
“Sending Okeechobee water south to the Everglades where it is needed, instead of dumping it harmfully and wastefully to the coastal estuaries, is the holy grail of South Florida restoration,” says Paul Gray, PhD, Everglades Science Coordinator for Audubon Florida. “We are counting on LOSOM to help move us in that direction.”
Audubon Florida and other environmental nonprofit organizations are proponents of alternative CC, with some modifications. An ideal plan CC would maximize water flows south into the Everglades to improve the health of the River of Grass, while reducing the harmful releases to the east and west that also contribute to summer algal blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Still, Audubon Florida has suggested modifications to CC to improve its ecological performance. To send more water south during the dry season, and reduce the likelihood of emergency releases during storms, CC should allow releases south unless Lake Okeechobee crosses the water rationing boundary, when flows should be reduced. Additionally, Audubon Florida suggests minimizing the length of time that Lake Okeechobee is higher than 16 feet in order to protect the health of the lake because deeper water damages the lake’s marsh, fish, and wildlife. We also recommend more reduction of harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee estuary as a modification to alternative CC.
In any final LOSOM plan, we strongly encourage that the Corps build in operational flexibility to accommodate the uncertainty of real-time changes in environmental conditions like wet weather events or severe storms due to a warming ocean and atmosphere.
Environmental organizations agree. “Moving more water south during the dry season will help meet the water needs of South Florida’s growing population and provide much-needed freshwater for the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said. “Sending water south from Lake Okeechobee will also have a profound effect on reducing the releases of harmful algal blooms to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.”
The Corps now begins a two month “optimization” process to fine tune Lake Okeechobee’s water management schedule in order to balance outcomes for all areas connected to the lake.