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BlogBreaking NewsfeaturedHow the new Lake O operations plan will affect Florida’s waters for the next decade

November 17, 2021
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After nearly three years—and a painstaking two-week delay—the Army Corps has finalized their modeling for the new Lake Okeechobee operations manual

Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced the ‘optimized lake schedule model run’ for the future Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). It was a huge decision in the LOSOM process because the selected model run will serve as the framework for the final operational plan. Bottom line, it looks significantly better than the current operational plan, which has plagued our coastal estuaries with harmful discharges and starved the Everglades for the past dozen years.

Technically, this still doesn’t mark the end of the process. For the next year, the Corps will “wrap the words around the numbers,” turning the scientific model they’ve selected into a usable operations manual. However, with this selection, the course is mostly set for how the plan will be written and what it will mean for the distribution of water in south Florida.

We’ve previously compared this decision to a goose being cooked, but it’s really more akin to the goose being fully prepped and into the oven. The dish will still continue to develop for some time, but all the ingredients have already been selected and set in the oven. From now until the final operations manual is released in late 2022/early 2023, there is very little opportunity designed into the process that would result in significant changes to the way the final plan will distribute water.

Of course, anything can—and probably will—happen, but any major modifications would be deviations from what’s expected. Is it possible that someone could still open the oven and pour vinegar all over this golden-ing goose? Sure, anything is possible, and we’ve seen similar charades in the past. That’s why it’s still super important that we continue to stay involved throughout the rest of the process. But at the end of the day, this optimized model is a substantial improvement over the status quo, and it’s extremely good news for the future of Lake Okeechobee operations.

How does the new plan compare?

The current Lake O operations plan (LORS 08) has cursed our estuaries since 2008, all-too-often leading to high-volume discharges that send nutrient-rich lake water carrying toxic blue-green algae to the east and west coasts. These discharges can fuel other harmful algal blooms, like red tide, and cause salinity imbalances that kill essential habitat, like seagrasses and oysters.

Those discharges are the result of a lake operations plan that has deprived water from flowing south to the Everglades during the dry season—when it’s desperately needed and as it once flowed naturally—resulting in unnecessarily high lake levels heading into the rainy season. They’re the result of a lake operations plan that has heavily favored industrial water supply interests to the detriment of all other stakeholders. They’re the result of a lake operations plan that was written in 2008, without enough widespread public involvement or concern. But that level of public engagement is much different now, and this new operational plan has been the opportunity to balance those inequities going forward.

Thankfully, this selection from the Corps shows that the final plan will be much more balanced than the current plan. This selected model is predicted to significantly reduce harmful discharges to both the east and west coasts, as well as send over three times more water south to the Everglades! It will also considerably improve minimum beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary during the dry season, which is important to maintaining salinity levels in the estuary.

Improving beneficial flows to both the Caloosahatchee and the Everglades has multiple advantages—it improves the ecology of both estuaries by balancing salinity levels, and it benefits the entire system because it helps lower the lake leading into the rainy season, which means high-volume discharges will be less likely for both coasts. It’s a win-win and a characteristic of the plan that will help get the most corn off the cob.

All in all, this selection signifies that LOSOM will be a significant improvement for the St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee, and Everglades compared to current operations.

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By the numbers

  • Predicted Caloosahatchee Discharges
    • 37% reduction in harmful discharges
    • 100% improvement in beneficial flows
  • Predicted St. Lucie Discharges
    • 37% reduction in total discharges
  • Predicted Everglades Flows
    • Over 3x more water south

It’s been a long road to get here

This decision has been a long time coming, and the road to this point has been anything but easy. There have been many obstacles along the way and several opportunities for the plan to go in the wrong direction, but thanks to unprecedented public engagement throughout the process, we can celebrate this selection today. Here’s a general timeline of the process so far, which highlights why it’s so important to stay involved going forward.

Feb-Mar 2019: Initial Scoping Meetings

Jan 30, 2020: Major planning meeting wherein stakeholders, like Chris Davison of the Island Inn, delivered powerful message to the planning team regarding the significant negative economic impacts of harmful lake discharges.

Jan 2020: Big Sugar attempts to plant two known sugar lobbyists onto the LOSOM Project Delivery Team (PDT) to influence the process. This conflict of interest was called out and they were removed.

April 2020: Big Sugar tries to sneak harmful language in WRDA 2020 under the cover of a global pandemic that would ultimately handcuff water managers in the operations of the Lake Okeechobee schedule. Their attempts were identified, public pressure was applied (including thousands of emails from the CFCW community), and the language was removed.

May 2020: Identified initial array of modeling runs and the methodology for evaluating those model runs.

May 2020-Aug 2021: Alternative Evaluation Iteration I & II. Evaluated hundreds of thousands of model runs, incrementally evaluating and narrowing down to one foundational model run to optimize going forward.

May 2021: State agencies, government officials, and community stakeholders call on the Corps to prioritize reducing harmful discharges to the coastal estuaries by sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

Jun 2021: Coast-to-coast unity—individuals and organizations from the affected estuaries and communities send a formal letter to the Corps demanding that they adopt a more equitable operational plan as they finalize LOSOM.

Jun 2021: Outdoor industry calls for an equitable LOSOM—dozens of outdoor brands delivered a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers demanding that Lake Okeechobee is managed more equitably through LOSOM.

Jul 19, 2021: Army Corps selects foundational plan CC to move forward in optimizing throughout Iteration III. Calls for public feedback on focus areas for optimization.

Jul 19-Aug 9, 2021: Army Corps receives over 9,000 emails from CFCW supporters calling for optimization to focus on reducing harmful discharges.

Aug-Nov 2021: Iteration III, known as optimization. Optimization of Model CC using further modeling and incremental evaluation. Army Corps identifies reducing harmful discharges as a top priority throughout optimization.

Sep 2021: Last Chance LOSOM Challenge—CFCW community rallies a social media challenge that sends thousands of additional emails to the Corps emphasizing the need for LOSOM to reduce harmful discharges.

Nov 16, 2021: Selection of ‘optimized lake schedule model run,’ which will serve as the framework for the final operational plan.

What’s next?

This decision marks a major milestone in the development of the new plan, but it’s not the end of the road. The next steps in the process will essentially be “putting the meat on the bones.” The Corps will now finalize the operational guidance that will accompany this selected model and write the water control plan based on this model, creating a usable manual.

Another large component they’ll be working on over the next year leading up to implementation will be the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as required by the National Environmental Protection Act. Tim Gysan of the Army Corps provided an update on the path forward, saying, “The release of the draft EIS for public comment is scheduled for April 2022, the release of a final EIS by October of 2022, and a Record of Decision in January of 2023, so that we have the plan ready to implement as soon as the Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation is complete.”

So, there’s still plenty of work still to be done, which is why it’s still so important that we continue to stay involved and engaged all the way through this project’s completion. Knowing what has already happened on the timeline up to this point underscores why we have to stay vigilant on this until the very end.