OPINION

Guest opinion: SWFL demands balance in the new Lake Okeechobee operating plan

Holly D. Smith
Special to The News-Press
Fort Myers resident Jackson Trescott catches air and waves while kiteboarding at Blind Pass at the bridge that connects Sanibel and Captiva on Sunday, July 12, 2020.

Benjamin Franklin once said that the only things certain in this world are death and taxes. For many businesses in South Florida a level of certainty is critical for survival. It provides a level of assurance that our investments will provide a return if market conditions are supportive. In Southwest Florida, however, the fate of our local businesses and tourism-based economy are not only influenced by national and global markets, they are also impacted by regional water management decisions. It is easily argued that the greatest impacts to our local businesses, aside from the occasional hurricane, are the damaging freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, blue-green algae and red tide blooms.

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As a hotelier and small business owner in Southwest Florida for more than 33 years, I have become accustomed to incessantly monitoring weather patterns and water levels in Lake Okeechobee to see what the future holds for our businesses. My angst is the result of decades of damaging discharges from the lake that have forever changed the ecology of the Caloosahatchee River and coastal waters and the harmful algal blooms that haunt our communities. While our coastal communities rely on the “hope” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages lake levels in a way that will spare our communities from year to year; some powerful interests in South Florida have been provided near-certainty when it comes to water supply and flood control.

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The Army Corps is in the process of developing a new operating plan for Lake Okeechobee. The new plan, referred to as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual or LOSOM, is supposed to “BALANCE” the different needs of the lake and water management system. So far, the process has been quite discouraging. It is abundantly clear that there is little balance when it comes to the interests of the west coast stakeholders. Based on preliminary plan results presented to date, the Corps is taking a business as usual approach — sacrificing the Caloosahatchee and coastal communities of Lee County to protect special interests. To make matters worse, the Corps is also considering eliminating the majority of discharges to the St. Lucie River and shifting those harmful flows to the west. The Corps’ plan must move that water south to the Everglades where it is needed, not increase damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee.  

Holly D. Smith

It is inconceivable that the Corps would provide absolute certainty to some stakeholders, while our west coast communities continue to suffer from damaging discharges and algae blooms. It is even more unimaginable that they would consider plans that provide additional certainty for water users at the expense of our coastal communities and natural systems. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the Corps is considering in their evaluation of the new lake operating plan. This is occurring despite the fact that water supply interests have not experienced significant water shortage cutbacks in the past 13 years under the current lake schedule. Demanding more certainty than what is provided under the current plan comes across as tone deaf when our coastal communities are preparing for yet another year of damaging discharges and algal blooms. 

Blue-green algae on Lake Okeechobee can be seen in this aerial image taken on May 3, 2021.

The Caloosahatchee cannot continue to be the relief valve for Lake Okeechobee and the entire water management system. The Corps must balance all of the project purposes when developing the new operating plan. Now is the time to stand up for the Caloosahatchee and Southwest Florida. Let the Corps know we are no longer the path of least resistance!      

Holly D. Smith is Mayor of the City of Sanibel and a hotelier in SWFL. Locally, her community commitment spans more than 30 years in Lee County. Mayor Smith currently serves on the Lee County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and is Vice Chair of the Lee County Horizon Council. She serves on numerous regional and state boards and committees.  An avid boater and fisherwoman, Mayor Smith’s deep commitment to water quality is evidenced by her long time advocacy efforts at the local, state and federal levels.