Corps considers raising Lake O levels, sending water south, east to protect Caloosahatchee
Modelers working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are tying to find ways to reduce harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee River when new Lake Okeechobee management regulations are finalized later this year.
"For Southwest Florida, one of the main drivers of our optimizations is to reduce the stressful releases to the Caloosahatchee and we’re going to do that in a couple of ways," said Army Corps Col. Andrew Kelly during a press conference Friday. "One way is to get additional water flow south that could potentially reduce stress to the Caloosahatchee. And we’re looking at raising the top line in the lake levels, so that could reduce releases. We're also looking at additional releases to the St. Lucie to reduce stresses as well."
The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were connected to the lake long ago to help drain the lake.
The lake operations Kelly referred to will be part of what's called the Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual, or LOSOM, a 10-year guide that will dictate lake levels.
Kelly took a public flogging in Fort Myers earlier this month when he announced the preliminary choice of alternatives.
That alternative, called CC, sends damaging discharges to the Caloosahatchee River during high water events and when blue-green algae is most likely to be present on Lake Okeechobee.
Kelly, though, received a warmer welcome last week when he met with U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, Chauncey Goss of the South Florida Water Management District and an Everglades restoration planner for the Department of the Interior.
Many local environmental groups say the Army Corps is moving in a better direction.
"I think they are on the right track and I think that's what most people see," said Daniel Andrews, with Captains for Clean Water. "I think there's a lot of political posturing and the Corps is an easy target. The Corps is telling us their priority is fixing the problems we've all expressed."
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High discharges during heavy rain events are a top concern as lake releases combined with basin runoff can blast the estuary 15 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
The lake can rise several feet in a matter of days after a large tropical storm or hurricane.
Historically the lake spilled over its southern banks and into the River of Grass and the southern part of the Everglades.
But today the lake is about half its former size and is controlled by a 143-mile earthen and concrete berm called Herbert Hoover Dike.
LOSOM will govern how that lake is managed, Kelly has said, until more Everglades restoration projects are completed and operational.
Paul Gray with Audubon Florida said the high flows also bring tons of nutrient pollution to the Southwest Coast as Lake Okeechobee is high in phosphorus and nitrogen.
"Giving good salinity to a dead estuary isn't going to help," Gray said of flow down the Caloosahatchee. "How do you maintain that health? My answer is you probably don’t. This is probably an exercise in moving harm around. Until we have (Everglades restoration projects in place) we’re going to be stuck with this water problem. With LOSOM, they can’t fix everything but they’re trying to equally distribute the harm."
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