(By Ed Ryan) For anyone who didn’t understand just how complicated managing Lake Okeechobee is, they do now. That is, if they attended the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Pink Shell on Fort Myers Beach Wednesday to hear a presentation by Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Andrew Kelly.
Kelly did an amazing job of explaining in detail just how complicated managing the Lake is. Colonel Kelly took over in Jacksonville in August of 2018 and many have said he’s managed Lake Okeechobee magnificently since then. They say Kelly’s leadership is the reason Southwest Florida has not seen a repeat of 2018.
When Kelly assumed command in Jacksonville he had quite a to-do list sitting on his desk. $2 Billion in repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, reducing the lake level, vegetation needed to be replenished, watching for water shortages, red tide, blue-green alga, and oh yeah, Mother Nature has a say in all of this if she decides to throw a hurricane or two into the mix. Not to mention dealing with the politics of it all.
Back in 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane hit the Lake Okeechobee area, killing approximately 300 people. In 1928, the Okeechobee Hurricane crossed over the lake, killing 2,500 people. Those two catastrophes were caused by flooding from a storm surge when strong winds drove water over the 6.6-foot mud dike that circled the lake at the time.
After the two hurricanes, the Florida State Legislature created the “Okeechobee Flood Control District”. The organization was authorized to cooperate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent similar disasters. U.S. President Herbert Hoover visited the area, and afterward the Corps designed a plan incorporating the construction of channels, gates, and nearly 140 miles of levees to protect areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee from overflow. The Okeechobee Waterway was officially opened in 1937, by a procession of boats which left Fort Myers on March 22 and arrived at Stuart, Florida the following day. The dike was named the “Herbert Hoover Dike” in honor of the president.
The Dike’s $2 Billion worth of repairs will be complete at the end of 2022, which is when the new operating manual will be implemented.
Colonel Kelly has been taking a lot of heat about that new Lake Okeechobee Operating Manual, especially from elected officials here in Lee County. Having served in war-weary Afghanistan, it’s clear Kelly is at ease when being questioned, sometimes badgered, at places like The Pink Shell Resort on Fort Myers Beach or at a Town Hall gathering in Cape Coral. The tough questions, the thousands of e-mails, the threat of a lawsuit. None of it seems to fluster the Colonel. He responds to every question with a smile and an assurance that the plan will be optimized.
You can certainly understand why Lee County officials have a 2018 red-tide hangover. The dead fish, the nasty odor, the cash registers not ringing. They do not believe this new Operating Plan, which will guide management of the Lake for the next ten years, addresses how water flowing from Lake Okeechobee impacts the Caloosahatchee River.
Colonel Kelly has repeatedly assured Lee County, at every step of the way, that this plan will be modified. He knows too much stress will be put on the Caloosahatchee as the plan is written now. That stress, he says, must and will be reduced. “We’re going to modify this. It’s a great foundation. We’re going to make changes but we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Some of those changes might include allowing the lake levels to rise higher with the new and improved Herbert Hoover Dike. It will certainly include sending more water south before looking our way for releases. Kelly also acknowledges we have to do a better job managing the ecology of the lake and algae needs to become a top priority. Again, it’s complicated.
The Corps is now in the process of optimizing the LOSOM plan. Later this year an Environmental Impact Statement will be written to see how the plan will impact endangered species and critical habitats.
2022 will be another year of public input during this process. Colonel Kelly will no longer be in charge when the new LOSOM plan is implemented. Kelly is retiring. Colonel James Booth will take over the Jacksonville District for the Corps in 2022.
Booth is a graduate of the Ranger Course and Airborne School. He is also a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Engineer Officer Basic and Advanced courses, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He took command of the Albuquerque District for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2016.