USACE tweaks Lake O plan after original ‘CC’ plan doesn’t sit well with Southwest Florida residents

August 13, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

After an announcement on July 19 regarding the potential new plan for releasing water from Lake Okeechobee, and after an outcry from Southwest Florida residents regarding their initial proposal, on Monday, Aug. 9 the federal government announced they had tweaked the plan to include a few concessions that would benefit the Caloosahatchee River.

The tweaks were a direct result of the United States Army Corps of Engineers asking for public input regarding their plan, which is called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. The plan, once finalized, will be in place for 10 years.

USACE Florida Commander Col. Andrew Kelly said that while the plan initially included no discharges to the St. Lucie River Estuary, they are now considering a plan which is more flexible. It includes sending more water south to the Everglades, addressing concerns of cyanobacteria buildup in the Caloosahatchee (a problem that has been plaguing the residents along the route of that river for years) and improving or maintaining drinking water supplies to South Florida communities and irrigation water for farmers.

While the majority of Lake O discharges is still set to be sent down the Caloosahatchee, now there is a certain amount that will be allowed into the St. Lucie after the water level in the lake reaches a certain level. According to Kelly, releases to the St. Lucie would occur only “as a last resort,” and “only if necessary.”

It is hard to please everyone, as the colonel is finding out, considering east coast residents don’t want any of the algae-ridden water from the lake flooding their river and estuaries, and west coast residents only want releases during the dry winter months, to keep saltwater levels stable. Farmers in the Everglades have irrigation needs and Glades residents are afraid the water could breach the Herbert Hoover Dike and flood their communities.

Right now there are four options for the path of Lake O water: Water conservation areas, the Caloosahatchee, the St. Lucie and the Lake Worth Lagoon. In the past very little water was released into the lagoon, which left water conservation areas and the two rivers – one running east and one running west – to handle the millions of gallons of discharged water.

Lee County District 1 Commissioner Kevin Ruane called a meeting with stakeholders, including the Army Corps of Engineers and Col Kelly, on July 26 to discuss the LOSOM. Commissioner Ruane expressed his frustration regarding the CC plan and its major drawbacks and told Kelly that Lee County would exercise its right and exhaust every venue – including legal ones – to make sure that high-flow discharges were not sent down the Caloosahatchee. Those sentiments were mirrored at town meetings across Southwest Florida in the past weeks.

It was the USACE who built the Lake O drainage system we have today, beginning in the Herbert Hoover administration and continuing through the Truman administration. Prior to that, Lake Okeechobee overflow gravity filtered through the land around the lake, eventually filtering out into the larger bodies of water surrounding the state as clear water. Two major flooding events in the 1920s caused grave concern, though, as thousands died in central Florida when the lake flooded, so new drainage systems were built by USACE. However, over the decades of confining water inside the lake, the natural filtration properties of the Everglades had been almost completely cut off. Prior to intervention, in 1929, Lake O had naturally gone south through the Everglades, but was now completely redirected to go East and West. That water was filled with large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus pumped into the lake from agricultural and residential runoff, and the chemicals present in the runoff became the basis for the blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, that we hear about today.

In essence, removing the Everglades from the Lake Okeechobee drainage system by installing the Herbert Hoover Dike removed the natural filtration process and left us with 60 years of toxic buildup, unfiltered, flowing in the water bodies where Lake O is discharged.

Many eco groups are asking the USACE to allow the water to flow more naturally, as it once did, into the Everglades. That process, however, is hindered by a lawsuit won by the Native people of Central Florida and environmental groups, which stipulates that all water that follows the original natural flow must be cleaned by 10 parts per billion … which is cleaner than most drinking water. That is a very expensive process, and one that is impossible to keep up with. At that time the State of Florida and the federal government started the Central Everglades Restoration Plan to do just that, but the federal government has fallen in their payments. That was in 2000, which the budget for the project was in the single-digit millions. That budget deficit now stands at approximately $18 billion and rising.

Kelly said they hope to have a final plan in place by November of this year.