(By Kim Ryan) The beaches, the tourism, the boating and fishing. Our water is the lifeblood of the local economy. This week there were two important meetings hosted by The Army Corps of Engineers to discuss how Lake Okeechobee will be managed for the next decade. Big decisions are being made that will impact the lives and livelihood of millions of people across the state of Florida.
The Corps held the meetings to present updated information in their continued pursuit of an optimal Lake Okeechobee schedule, part of the process towards developing the new Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual, also known as LOSOM. Both meetings were attended by Project Delivery Team members, and many stakeholders, including elected officials, a variety of non-profit environmentally conscious organizations and the public.
You may recall, back in early August, an option known then as CC was chosen as the preferred preliminary alternative. This would be the foundational plan to be further “optimized” in the hopes of achieving balance throughout the system.
That plan, which many felt was anything but balanced, included significantly reduced discharges to the east coast. This was not well received by the west coast stakeholders who said the plan would be worse than the current plan known as LORS 08, objecting to the amount of stressful/harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee.
Additionally, there was concern about continuing to measure flows at S77 in Moore Haven versus S79 Franklin Locks as this did not account for the significant additional volume of water into the river from its large watershed. There was even chatter about a lawsuit if this were to be the final outcome. Many in our area, upon hearing about the plan, wrote, called and sent e-mails to the Corps, making sure they were on the record, as the organization moved the plan to the next phase.
As the Corps began the optimization period, or iteration 3, it had 7 goals or “guiding principles.” A main goal to our side of the state was reducing stress to the Caloosahatchee river and estuary. Also listed: sending more water south, addressing algae, recognizing The Seminole Tribe as a distinct water supply user, helping lake ecology, and having flexibility in the lower portions of the schedule. The Corps started with over 200,000 model runs, distilled that down to 707, and further reduced the options to 8 alternatives which were presented on Tuesday October 26th.
Those 8 models were met with mixed reviews. The response of the stakeholders representing the east coast was visceral. They expressed disappointment regarding the models, which showed increased flows to the St. Lucie, compared to the original CC plan.
Brad Stewart is Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Representative Brian Mast said, “Plan CC had split adversity between east and west coast evenly. These plans got significantly less balanced compared to CC. It does feel like there was a bait and switch that went on in this process.” Stewart asked the Corps to work to fix the problems with the models presented.
Nyla Pipes from One Florida Foundation said she was overwhelmed by the fact that there were over 200,000 model runs to go through and asked the Corps to “tap the brakes.” She referenced the speed at which the process is currently moving.
Lake Okeechobee stakeholders were also concerned about the negative impact the options would have on Lake ecology, as high lake levels will severely damage the marshes. One caller during the second meeting on Thursday said, “Your killing the heart of the Everglades.”
Steve Davis from The Everglades Foundation said he was delighted to see the focus on meaningful and equitable discharge reduction and increased water moving south.
Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Environmental Policy Director James Evans said he was very pleased the Corps was listening to west coast stakeholders and are moving forward with a group of models that truly balance the needs of the entire water management system.
Lee County Commission Chairman Kevin Ruane thanked everyone for listening and said he was surprised and happy about the improvements.
Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said the LOSOM process has been open, transparent and thorough. “It’s clear that there has been a concerted by the Corps to achieve the seven goals for optimization. I feel that they (the corps) listened to the needs of the West Coast. Is it perfect for us – no. It’s not perfect for any one stakeholder. There are trade offs which must be made for the entire system. Most importantly, I’m very encouraged to see there are models which at face value improve conditions to the Caloosahatchee estuary and have benefits for all stakeholders across the system.”
Project Delivery Team representative for Lee County Susan Gray agreed with the concerns around Lake O’s ecology as well as extending the review period. “CC was a disaster for the Caloosahatchee, with 27 continuous months of stressful and damaging high flows to the estuary. We don’t want a disaster for us and we don’t want a disaster for The St. Lucie.”
You can see by the chart below where the models improve or reduce performance in the various system areas.
Bonita Springs Councilman Jesse Purdon is also the District Director for Representative Byron Donalds. He suggested a few of the presented plans (262200 and 279349) would put us in a better place. “This finally measures us, for the first time, from the appropriate place and puts us apples to apples with the east coast.”
It appeared all the communication sent to the Corps by the local stakeholders about the concerns with alternative CC were heard loud and clear. Chairman Ruane said in a statement to Beach Talk Radio News, “Our area did a great job advocating and I strongly encourage them to continue.”
The Corps will continue to look at the models and plans to make a decision on a model soon.