Corps effort to lower Lake Okeechobee level questioned

OKEECHOBEE — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to lower Lake Okeechobee in anticipation of the wet season has local community leaders concerned about the safety of the water supply.

Since the start of the dry season in October, the corps has released an average of 1,000 cubic feet per second to the Caloosahatchee (measured at the Franklin Lock) to benefit that waterway. Although the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) schedule only guarantees 400 cfs dry-season flow to the Caloosahatchee River, Lee County officials have asked for a minimum of 750 cfs and maintain that 1,000 cfs is the optimum dry-season flow to that waterway.

In February, the corps increased flow to the Caloosahatchee to 1,800 cfs and also started pulse release to the St. Lucie Canal averaging 500 cfs.

On March 15, the corps announced a plan to continue to release water east and west.

Starting Saturday, March 16, the corps continued the current pulse release to the Caloosahatchee estuary at a seven-day average rate of 1,800 cfs and reduced the flows to the St. Lucie estuary down to an average seven-day pulse release of 250 cubic feet per second as measured at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam (S-80).

“Our strategy to reverse the rise of the lake has been successful so far,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District commander. “We’ve been able to bring the lake down more than a half-foot over the past three weeks. We’re going to continue our current pulse release to the Caloosahatchee while making a slight adjustment to the St. Lucie release to help with oyster spawning in the estuary. An additional 2 to 3 inches of rain is forecast, which will increase the runoff in area canals. Should the rain develop as forecast, we will have difficulty in taking the lake lower, so we want to continue releasing water while the opportunity remains.”

Col. Kelly said the corps doesn’t intend to drive the water level to a specific target. “We are looking for results, rather than trying to hit a specific number,” he said.

On March 15, the following letter was sent to Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District:

“The undersigned represent a large cross-section of South Florida’s economy and communities, both private and public, that rely on Lake Okeechobee and predictable functioning of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF Project). We are stakeholders interested in the decisions that affect water supply in the lake and have engaged extensively in water management decisions and the operation of the C&SF Project for decades.

“We write to express our grave concerns with the decisions currently being made by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with the SFWMD’s support, that could drive the lake to extreme low levels. The South Florida region has lived through prior agency decisions to lower the lake in the dry season in anticipation of wet season rain that never came. Severe economic and environmental consequences resulted from those decisions. Many have experienced the harsh reality of gambling on Mother Nature and being wrong.

“These lessons were unforgettable. Yet, despite this well-known history, the corps, along with the SFWMD, appear on track to repeat the mistakes of the past. Your plan to drive the lake down, as noted in the Corps’ Memoranda for the Record (MFR) dated October 2018 and February 2019, is even more aggressive than these past drawdown decisions.

“The lake stage is already low for this time of year, approximately 1 foot below the bottom of the lake’s preferred ecological operating range. The lake stage recently entered the “Beneficial Use Band.” In this band, the operating schedule calls for the corps and SFWMD to conserve water, but discharges continue. The current release rates are unprecedented, at a combined rate of 2,300 cfs (up from 1000 cfs in the October 2018 MFR), plus the unquantified volume sent south, per the MFR dated Feb. 22, 2019. These releases, being made in the absence of any extreme weather conditions, exceed the volumes analyzed in the LORS08 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement or the LORS08 2018 Biological Opinion. Already vegetation is stressed in the stormwater treatment areas, which may affect water quality; water conservation areas above their regulation schedules; increased discharges to the northern estuaries; and unwanted discharges to the Lake Worth Lagoon. All of these impacts currently exist, yet the discharges continue, jeopardizing the environment and water supplies for municipalities (representing millions of residents), business and agriculture.

“Congress spoke clearly when it stated that the lake was to serve multiple purposes and the lake’s regulation schedule was to balance all authorized C&SF Project purposes. The current discharges have significantly departed from this mandate. Under the so-called ‘Additional Operational Flexibility’ (AOF), a tool to be used ‘infrequently’ and for ‘unique’ occurrences, the corps has made discharges for months, with no end in sight. The prudent approach, supported by sound independent science, is to take advantage of the billions of dollars spent to date to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, and store more water in the lake, not less.

“With no opportunity for stakeholder engagement, and no meaningful analysis of the adverse effects to our communities and the environment, we must strenuously request the corps and the SFWMD halt these current discharges. We ask the corps to return to typical operations under the approved water control plan, while we, as a community, work together to develop the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).

“We look forward to partnering with the SFWMD and the corps in the management of the system, within the approved schedules, not a politically-concocted approach, lacking scientific support. Our water resources are too precious to gamble with anything less.”

The letter is signed by Lake Worth Drainage District; Okeechobee County; City of Okeechobee; City of West Palm Beach; Southeast Florida Utilities Council; Associated Industries of Florida; Okeechobee Economic Council; Florida Land Council; H2O Coalition Florida; Fruit and Vegetable Association; Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association; Florida Farm Bureau Federation; Indian River County Farm Bureau; Richard Budell, executive director, Florida Agribusiness Council, and former director of water policy for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; Russ Frydenborg, president, Frydenborg EcoLogic, and former program administrator for the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); Frank Nearhoof, president, Nearhoof Environmental Consulting and former program administrator, Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, Florida Dep; and, Henry Dean, former executive director, SFWMD.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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