Army Corps' big reveal: How different is new Lake O management plan?

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

The suspense for those waiting for the big reveal of a new Lake Okeechobee management plan ended Tuesday afternoon.

Kind of.

As he opened the meeting announcing the federal plan, Project Manager Tim Gysan stressed that what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has chosen is a skeleton, not a fleshed-out final blueprint.

“This is the framework of the preferred alternative,” said Gysan, project manager for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). “This is not the end of the process by any means.”

No one envied the Corps’ task of balancing competing stakeholder needs, but the agency’s guiding principle throughout the last two years of input-gathering, computer modeling and refinements was to “improve on the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule we have operated under since 2008,” said Col. James Booth, Commander of the Jacksonville District, which includes Florida and the Caribbean.

Col. James Booth is the District Commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.

Bottom line up front, Booth said, mission accomplished: The new plan will be better for most Lake O stakeholders: the Everglades, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, agriculture, the people who depend on it for water, including the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes and the 9.3 million residents protected by the lake’s Herbert Hoover Dike.

How much better remains an open question, but overall, the plan allows water managers to run things ”in a more dynamic way” than it’s been handled, Booth said. “LOSOM will be flexible and adaptive.”

Previously:How's the Corps doing with the in-progress Lake O plan? Advocates, officials weigh in on what they're seeing so far

Guest opinion: New water control model brings 'significant improvement'

Scenes from the Franklin and Ortona Locks on the Caloosahatchee River on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. The Army Corps of Engineers announced they would start discharging water from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers on Wednesday October 14, 2020. . The releases started at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the discharges could last a month. The discharges are intended to prevent breaches in the Herbert Hoover Dike around the quickly rising lake.

The model the Corps chose for the plan’s foundation (No. 260467) should cut lake releases to the St. Lucie River by about a third, while increasing beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee River and the southern Everglades, said Eve Samples, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Everglades, while still allowing for massive discharges east and west when Lake Okeechobee is near or above 17 feet, depending on the time of year.

Booth emphasized that it’s still a work in progress. To-dos include $1.8 billion in work on the dike surrounding the lake, releasing a "preferred alternative" mid-December and finishing an environmental impact statement in October of 2022 before presenting the final version of the new schedule, which goes live in 2023.

When the Corps floated an earlier version of the plan, known as CC, many Southwest Florida advocates sounded the alarm, saying it would harm this watershed, which has been repeatedly devastated by harmful lake discharges, but needs some freshwater in the dry season to keep salinity in balance. Lee Commission Chair Kevin Ruane promised legal action if the Corps didn’t improve it.

Whether the final framework accomplishes that, “Staff is still analyzing the Corps’ decision,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said in a statement.

To many Caloosahatchee-area advocates, the news was good

To many Caloosahatchee-area advocates, the news was good.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s James Evans, the nonprofit’s director of environmental policy said he was “very pleased … We have suffered for the last 13-plus years (under the past plan) and this plan will help our estuaries recover," especially since an earlier version of the plan, known as CC, would have been worse for this watershed, Evans said.

James Evans, Director of Natural Resources, City of Sanibel.

“We’re pleased the Corps decided to take another look and optimize,” he said. “We see significant improvements.”

And Daniel Andrews of the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water is “very happy.” Overall, he said, the new plan “looks amazing – a reduction in harmful discharges, over three times the amount of water flowing south (to the Everglades) than what we’re getting now. It’s a lot simpler a philosophy in how they’re releasing: It’s ‘We give everybody the water that they need until the lake gets too high, then we discharge.’ Before, it was like, ‘We may be in a bad spot several months from now, so let’s start discharging just in case.’"

Though the model the Corps picked wasn't one U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples' staff initially preferred, " with the scientific analysis provided, I believe this is a great step towards creating an equitable solution to benefit all Floridians," he said in a statement calling it a "vast improvement for our community, our water systems, and our way of life." He also applauded the inclusive process: "For the first time in decades, the concerns of our community’s stake holders were listened to in the decision-making process and Southwest Florida will benefit greatly because of it."

On the east coast, the cheers weren’t as loud

On the east coast, however, the cheers weren’t as loud.

In contrast to the Caloosahatchee, the St. Lucie and its estuary never needs lake water, and advocates have been fighting to slash or eliminate flows from the lake. So far, it looks like they’ll be cut by about 40%.

Congressman Brian Mast of Stuart saw it as a good news/bad news situation.

On the positive side: “Under the proposed plan more water can flow south into the Everglades while less water will likely flow east and west during the summer months when the risk of algal blooms is highest. This is an improvement on the very bad status quo,” he said in a statement.

But on the negative: “This plan falls far short of truly rebalancing the scales of justice when it comes to water management in Florida. Critics will say that that level of progress is impossible until more infrastructure is built, but that’s (BS). The truth is that, in the final months of this process, the Army Corps chose to prioritize increased water supply for sugarcane over the health of the estuaries and Lake Okeechobee, and as a result, this plan still has the potential to send unacceptable volumes of toxic water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. We need to build more water infrastructure in South Florida, but we also need more equitable operations to match it.”

Once again, Mast says, the sugar industry wins, remaining “the largest benefactor, receiving hundreds of billions of gallons of guaranteed water to irrigate their crops.  Meanwhile, the communities on Florida’s East and West coasts will remain the biggest losers being forced to live under the constant threat of polluted toxic water, guacamole-thick algal blooms and severe public health risks.”

From the agricultural community's perspective, Keith Wedgworth, Western Palm Beach Farm Bureau president said his group encourages the Corps "to seek further balance as they refine their operating process (and) continues to make the necessary changes to get it right, though he did call the plan an improvement.

It's also better for the Everglades and other natural systems, allows Friends of the Everglades’ Samples, but better is relative, she points out. “The bar was set very low. Remember, the current Lake O plan triggered the toxic algae blooms of 2018, 2016 and 2013 in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. We have more work to do to ensure the finalized LOSOM delivers the maximum possible relief to the long-abused St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries when it takes effect.”

Her concerns include what’s called a “conservation mode” that would cut off helpful flows to the Everglades and Caloosahatchee during dry periods “in order to stockpile water for sugarcane corporations’ fields south of the lake. That’s not balance,” she said. “We also have concerns about a Lake Okeechobee “recovery mode” (that) likely would dump large volumes of water east and west in order to lower lake levels in certain years — an impact that’s not yet captured in the LOSOM modeling."

Her bottom line is that the plan should not favor farming over residents and the environment. “Now that a model has been selected for LOSOM, we must ensure the written guidance of the new Lake Okeechobee plan protects Florida’s people and ecosystem as much as it protects irrigation and drainage for hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane fields.”

The question of the lake's health remains, Andrews says. Though it supports a prized fishery and is a birding hotspot, for years it's been treated as an agricultural reservoir.

“The lake is the definite loser in LOSOM, and I think that was predetermined from the start” he said. “We were hoping to see the lake overall held at lower than it is right now (but) this new plan will hold it 6 inches higher most of the time.”

Problem is, he says, the system is extremely complicated. “It’s hard to put into a couple of lines. We don’t ever want the lake to be harmed, however, we don’t want to sacrifice the estuaries for the lake either."

With its dike and artificially attached rivers, the lake is no longer a natural ecosystem, Andrews says. "So we are ultimately left with a choice: Do you want to manage for the  health of the lake or the health of the estuaries or some kind of balance? If you want to manage it for the lake, get ready for extreme water cutbacks and devastating discharges – that’s just the unfortunate reality.

"It’s definitely a challenge.”