Water managers are considering new Lake O release plans. One would be bad for the Caloosahatchee River
Water managers are working to create new Lake Okeechobee release regulations and the alternative that's getting the most attention would be bad for the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary.
The South Florida Water Management District governing board met Thursday in West Palm Beach to discuss what's called the Lake Okeechobee System Operational Manual, or LOSOM.
LOSOM is a water release management tool being developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to guide future Lake Okeechobee releases, and one of five alternatives will be selected by the Army Corps next week.
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One of five alternatives, called CC, would cut down flows to the St. Lucie River and instead depend more on the Caloosahatchee to relieve swelling Lake Okeechobee waters.
"Volume and intensity for the Caloosahatchee River was horrible with (the) CC (alternative)," said Jennifer Reynolds, a water management district engineer and former head of the Army Corps' district office in Jacksonville. "That’s a large volume of water that I’ve got to do something with. I have to put that water some place, so I tried to put it to as many places as I could and some of it had to go to the St. Lucie.
"None of the alternatives quite get us where we want to be but some of them have real merit and some have real merits in particular areas," Reynolds said. "Is there a way to take one of these alternatives and infuse those policies and ideas and get something better out of it?"
So the water management district developed what it calls SR3.5, which sends more water to the St. Lucie than CC would while also cutting down on what the Caloosahatchee gets.
"The Corps doesn’t have any other place to put the water until we have more storage so there will be times when water has to go east and west because we have nowhere else to put it," Reynolds said. "But we’re trying to give those organisms that greatest chance to bounce back as possible."
Col. Andrew Kelly, the top Army Corps officer for Florida, said he thinks the project is on schedule and that the agency is ready to move forward.
"I think I've heard just about everything I need to hear, minus today and the alternative I think will be to get out on Monday," Kelly said. "Then we'll go listen and figure out what the objectives are, what can be fine tuned and optimized. So in August my goal is to have a plan and goals for optimization."
Kelly said the the final alternative will be fully developed by September.
The SR3.5 addition to the CC alternative would include sending higher flows over shorter durations to better allow the estuaries to recover from freshwater blasts.
Board member Scott Wagner used a football analogy to describe how higher intensity but lower duration releases can be better than lower intensity discharges over a longer period of time.
"Once you get to those high levels, the estuary gets tense and goes on defense so to speak from what is a damaging discharge," Wagner said. "But the days you don’t do it allows the estuary to go on offense. So you if take the volume and compact that knowing the estuary will be on defense anyway, then you’re able to hopefully let out enough water so that you’re maximizing the amount of days the estuary can go on offense."
Reynolds said Wagner's description was very simplified but relatively accurate.
The district represents the historic Everglades system, comprises 16 counties and stretches from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.
Historically the lake topped out at 20 feet or higher and flooded millions of acres surrounding Okeechobee.
The Caloosahatchee River was likely naturally connected to Lake Okeechobee during heavy rain years decades ago, but developers turned the waterfalls and springs at the headwaters of the river in to a long, straight, deep canal that today moves billions of gallons of water a year.
Since 2008 the Army Corps has tried to keep the level of the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level to provide flood control, water supply to farms and urbanized areas, and healthy flows to natural systems like the Caloosahatchee River.
The schedule that's currently in places is called the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, or LORS, and it hasn't changed substantially since lessons learned by the Army Corps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2008).
"The (LOSOM) lake schedule can’t solve all of our problems, but the lake is a huge freshwater resource in the middle of our state and is the heart of the Everglades," Reynolds said. "It’s 730 square miles that feeds our Everglades system and provides the freshwater for 9 million people in South Florida."
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