Florida’s message to the Corps:
Codify a plan into LOSOM that prioritizes reducing harmful discharges to the coastal estuaries by sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades during the dry season and providing more capacity for the rainy season. Stakeholders from across the state agree that’s what needs to happen, echoing the demand this week during a Monday press conference in Hobe Sound and at Wednesday’s business roundtable in Fort Myers.
At the press conference on Monday, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, The Everglades Foundation, state officials and others were all in attendance, each providing comments about why the Corps must build those priorities into the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) as they write the new schedule.
During the roundtable event on Wednesday, representatives from local business and hotels impacted by imbalances in the current schedule plead their case for a more equitable distribution going forward—one that puts a premium on minimizing damaging discharges to the east and west coasts.
What’s the latest on LOSOM?
LOSOM—currently in development and to be completed later this year—will replace the existing Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS 2008) and provide a new framework for how the Corps manages the lake for the next decade. Depending on how it’s written, LOSOM has the ability to offer some near-immediate relief to the estuaries, so it’s critical that the Corps gets it right.
The process for writing LOSOM has been tough to follow—probably similar in complexity to coding the ultraviolet spectrometer on the Mars Rover—so we won’t go into the details of it. Just know that it’s been in development for over three years, starting with thousands of potential model runs, then narrowing down to a handful of runs that benefit single components of the system (the “Hunger Games” stage, as James Evans from SCCF calls it), and now down to a few “balanced” runs.
But those balanced runs fail to provide truly equitable distribution of the water, and it doesn’t seem like the Corps is listening to the overwhelming public opinion to reduce discharges by sending more water south during the dry season. So, this consensus from the state sends a strong message to the Corps about what’s best for the majority of stakeholders, calling for all Floridians to be represented in the final LOSOM.
A high lake right now emphasizes the need for a better schedule going forward
In 2018, harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee decimated large portions of South Florida’s ecology and economy. As a response to that devastation, the Army Corps of Engineers deviated from the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule in 2019 and 2020, using an expanded set of tools to lower lake levels during the dry season and prevent harmful discharges to the coasts during the rainy season.
Those deviations proved to be largely successful, showing that changing lake management can benefit all users in the short term without the need to spend tax dollars or wait for infrastructure projects to come online.
This year—despite the plea from citizens, scientists, and state officials—the Corps did not take full opportunity to reduce Lake levels, resulting in conditions similar to those leading into the water crisis of 2018. Now, with lake levels currently a foot and half higher than they were at this time last year—and 500 square miles of toxic blue-green algae covering the lake—the east and west coast communities are once again staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
Why weren’t efforts to lower the lake maximized this past dry season?
The current water management system had the physical capacity to send more water south through the Everglades later in the dry season to allow greater capacity in the system for summer rains. However, the Corps reserved that water in Lake Okeechobee as a safeguard for water supply interests, almost entirely to the benefit of the industrial sugar industry south of the lake, which uses the vast majority of Lake Okeechobee’s water supply.
Additionally, too much capacity in the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) was taken up by runoff from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). These STAs help to filter and clean the water before sending it south. When their capacity—an annual allotment of water—is taken up by runoff from the EAA, that limits the amount of water that can flow through them from the lake, further compounding the issue of a high lake. Although those STAs are partially funded by taxpayer dollars, this year, private interests demanded their cake and ate it too, using up more than their fair share of capacity.
These special interests also lobby heavily to manage the system for water supply—a strategy that provides the least balance across the board, and one that’s in direct conflict with what’s best for clean water and healthy estuaries.
Managing for water supply—again, the vast majority of which is used for sugar operations—is kind of like putting anchovies on a group’s pizza when four out of the five people splitting the pie hate anchovies, but one guest loves them. The dinner is ruined for four people, while one uncompromising guest is catered to.
In much the same way, when the lake is managed for water supply, it’s managed to the detriment of the other major components, and we wind up with higher-than-necessary lake levels that almost guarantee high-volume discharges in the rainy season.
Managing the system for the health of its major components—the Caloosahatchee estuary, St. Lucie estuary, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades and Florida Bay—is very achievable, and actually works quite naturally. However, when water supply is rolled into the equation, and especially when it’s given priority, there will inevitably be catastrophic impacts to the rest of the system.
Although these water management decisions are largely in the hands of the Corps, the state weighing in during the LOSOM process is very significant, and hopefully it will influence a better outcome in favor of fewer discharges to the estuaries—hopefully, it will lead to more clean water flowing south to the Everglades, rather than ending up as special-interest water supply funded by taxpayers.