Army Corps of Engineers makes decision on basic plan of Lake O outflow … and not all agree

November 20, 2021
By T Michele Walker

BY T MICHELE WALKER AND MARCY SHORTUSE – After years of research by the United States Army Corps of Engineers a decision was announced this week that Lake Okeechobee runoff would be headed south and west in what is known as “model 260467.” It is the basis for the final Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual and is considered by some to be the “preferred alternative, water control plan and environmental impact statement.”

However, not everyone agrees that the west-central side of the state where Gasparilla Island is located will be out of the woods as far as harmful bacteria and alga blooms that come with Lake O releases. 

In this plan, releases to the east into the St. Lucie Estuary will decrease overall by about 35 to 40 percent, while more water releases sent south will send significantly more water to the south and give the Caloosahatchee River more water than it needs during the dry season.

Prior to the man-made rerouting of Lake Okeechobee overflow, the majority flowed south. Through that process any harmful microbial or bacterial matter was slowly filtered through a larger amount of land mass to the southern part of the state. The water that entered the Gulf or the Atlantic was much cleaner by the time it got there, as was nature’s plan.

Of course now the releases from Lake O are faster and more powerful, and the majority was moved quickly out into the Gulf by way of the Caloosahatchee River, or into the Atlantic via the St. Lucie River. There was little time for that water to be filtered by natural process through the ground, which means that people along those routes have been suffering from cyanobacterium outbreaks. Red tide in the Gulf has been made worse because of the rapid release of water from the lake.

According to the plan that was announced on Tuesday, Nov. 16, the new LOSOM model will guide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in managing the 730-square-mile lake’s levels over the next decade.

LOSOM will replace the previous plan, written in 2008, nicknamed LORS

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.

The Army Corps stated that, overall, LOSOM is a significant improvement in accomplishing balance for all stakeholders compared to LORS 08.

USACE’s Col. James Booth, one of the key players in the LOSOM plan, explained the following summary of changes:

• Eliminate lake releases to the St. Lucie under normal conditions, sending zero lake water to the east 95 percent of the time. Under 2008 LORS, releases east were at zero only 37 percent 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. 

• 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.

U.S. Congressman Brian Mast doesn’t necessarily agree

Mast’s response to this announcement, after listening to the press conference, was “There is good and bad news from today.”

He said 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. He called it “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,” Mast said. “Critics will say that level of progress is impossible until more infrastructure is built, but that’s bull****. 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.”

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg speaks out in favor of the plan

Eikenberg said he feels that 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,” he stated. “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.”

Captains for Clean Water, a grassroots organization out of Fort Myers with many Boca Grande connections, expressed their optimism about the announcement as well

Alycia Downs, director of education and awareness for Captains for Clean Water, called the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision a “significantly improved lake operations plan,” and said that CFCW had been pushing hard to make it happen.

“The Army Corps has announced the long-awaited final plan for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, the rulebook that will dictate lake discharges for the next decade. The model run they’ve selected will significantly improve water quality in south Florida compared to current lake operations and will reduce harmful algal blooms like red tide and blue-green algae.

“Captains for Clean Water has been intimately involved in the LOSOM process since the beginning with one goal — to influence the outcome of LOSOM so that more water flows south to the Everglades and Florida Bay and that, to the extent possible, damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries are minimized.”

USACE has said the LOSOM plan 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.