(By Kim Ryan) This week, Florida Congressman Byron Donalds held a Water Tele-Town Hall meeting with the newly appointed commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, Colonel James Booth. Booth took over the post this month from Colonel Andrew Kelly. Booth assumes responsibility for managing the second largest Army Corps civil works district in the U.S., which includes Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
The discussion included a review and update on the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, the current state of Southwest Florida’s water, and what’s coming up.
In his opening comments, the Colonel discussed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects which are currently under construction and “will increase the resiliency of South Florida water resource systems.” He specifically spoke of the C-43 Caloosahatchee reservoir which will store and treat water for releases. The reservoir is due to be fully operational in 2025.
During the hour-long Q&A, both the Congressman and the Colonel fielded a variety of questions from Southwest Floridians. Many of the questions were related to concerns which arose after the Army Corps chose alternative CC as the plan they say they’re tweaking and optimizing to get the “absolute best performance” out of the plan as the process continues. The finalized operating manual is expected to be completed for implementation in December 2022.
A few of the questions focused on water quality issues such as red tide and harmful algal blooms like those that plagued the area in 2018. Booth acknowledged those concerns and explained that the South Florida Water Management District has been taking the lead on stormwater treatment and reducing the nutrient load that comes into the system. He said the state also has several procedures and programs in place to work on that. Booth pointed out that the Corps., through the new operating manual, will take into account the harmful algal blooms and give them the flexibility to make decisions in adjusting water releases. That’s something that was not done with the previous plan, which was called LORS 08.
In response to the concerns about stressful flows coming into the Caloosahatchee, Booth, like Kelly before, said the Corps heard that message “loud and clear” and is “definitely listening.” “We want the flows coming out to the Caloosahatchee to be in that beneficial range from about 750 to below 2100 cubic feet per second. We are also looking at those damaging flows (the current version) and trying to reduce that as well.”
During this optimization period, the Corps will also be looking at where flows are measured. He stated they heard the desire of stakeholders to measure flows at S79 (Franklin Lock) vs. S77 which is closer to the lake, to account for all the additional water that flows into the river from its large watershed. “ We are modeling that in and looking to keep it out of the stressful/harmful range as much as possible. We’re seeing if we can move in a better direction, in the optimized version of the current plan we’re working on.”
Congressman Donalds praised the Corps for being “responsive and listening extensively.” He too answered questions and displayed a depth of knowledge regarding nutrient load, Lake O ecology, and the importance of achieving balance throughout the entire system for all constituents and stakeholders. He also did not back away when someone called into question his trustworthiness to bring clean water to the area, alleging he’d taken “hundreds of thousands of dollars from big sugar and big oil money interests” He responded that the amount was not hundreds of thousands of dollars. He did confirm taking contributions from “a lot of sugar farmers,” explaining that when he was in the state legislature he represented Clewiston and Hendry Counties, “so I do have relationships with the farming community.”
Donalds expressed his desire to make sure “there is a balanced system for all of southern Florida.” He said the two key issues he’s focused on are the discharges for Southwest Florida and what the Corps. is going to do to manage the health of the lake. “If you have a healthy Iake, it makes the job significantly easier for everybody,” Donalds said.
You can listen to the town hall meeting on Congressman Donalds Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/RepDonaldsPress