City of Stuart may sue Army Corps of Engineers over lake plan

OKEECHOBEE — The Stuart City Commission may sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the 2019-2020 dry season plan for Lake Okeechobee.

At their Jan. 13 meeting, the commissioners discussed the option of filing a lawsuit, in response to Col. Andrew Kelly’s Dec. 19 announcement that because the lake was already around 13 feet following an unusually short wet season, the remainder of year’s dry season strategy will focus on retaining water in the lake while providing freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee River for as long as possible.

Stuart Commissioner Merritt Matheson, who proposed the lawsuit, said he wants the corps to manage the lake they way they did during the 2018-2019 dry season, using dry season releases of freshwater to tide in order to drive the lake down to 10 feet above sea level.

“The colonel said his priority this year will be water supply. We want the priority to be health and human safety,” said Commissioner Matheson.

He said the City of Stuart’s top priority is zero lake releases to the St. Lucie River.

He said that while potential water supply problems are hypothetical, the health concerns that come with the toxic algae blooms are real.

The commissioners will discuss the details of the lawsuit at their Jan. 27 meeting, but they voted 5-0 Monday night to have their attorney draft the suit.

On Dec. 19, Col. Kelly said with a relatively normal dry season forecast, the lake should drop to around 12 feet by the start of the rainy season.
The water level in the lake was relatively low for this time of year, largely influenced by a shorter wet season and the driest September on record, the colonel said. The water level in the lake stabilized during the autumn months and should remain relatively stable with normal precipitation.
“Our best estimate is that the lake will be approximately 12 feet on June 1st, which is a great position to begin the wet season,” said Col. Kelly. “We will keep a close eye on that mark.”

On Dec. 5, the corps released the draft RECOVER Lake Okeechobee Stage Envelope Performance Measure, which found the healthiest range for the lake is 12 feet to 15 feet above sea level; ideally ending the wet season at 15 feet, gradually declining to 12 feet by the end of the dry season, and then slowly rising again to 15 feet over the course of the wet season. Gradual rises are critical to the lake’s submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which can be lost if the water level rises faster than the plants can grow. The low lake levels at the end of the dry season allow sunlight to reach the lake bottom and plants to sprout. If the water rises too quickly, the young SAV might not get enough sunlight. However, if the lake level is too low for too long, woody plants can take over the marshy areas around the lake’s edges, destroying that habitat.

The SAV is the lake’s natural filter system. It also provides critical habitat for fish and feeding grounds for birds and other wildlife.

At the Dec. 12 SFWMD meeting, water managers were warned that depending on rainfall, they could be looking at water shortages in 2020. SFWMD has not scheduled a public meeting in January. The governing board participated in a panel on Everglades restoration issues on Jan. 11 in Captiva.

On Jan. 14, Lake Okeechobee was at 13.06 feet, down slightly from 13.12 feet the previous week. For the past seven days, an average of 737 cubic feet per second (cfs) was released to the Caloosahatchee River at Moore Haven. For the week, an average of 452 cfs was released at Port Mayaca to maintain the water level in the St. Lucie Canal for boat traffic. No lake water has been released to the St. Lucie River since the end of the 2018 wet season. During the seven days prior to Jan. 14, an average total of 544 cfs was released south for water supply. This means more water from the lake was going west to maintain the desired salinity levels in the Caloosahatchee River than is going south for water supply.

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