Corps on lake issues: Trust us’

OKEECHOBEE – What will happen with the lake level this year? Next year? What will happen when the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) goes into effect in 2022?

County representatives at the County Coalition for the Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon had lots of questions at their Feb. 7 meeting in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse. Will the corps use “operational flexibility” in the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) to force the lake lower? Will there be a “deviation” from the established schedule?

“It’s coming down to trust,” said Lt. Col. Todd Polk of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “At the end of the day we are asking all of the stakeholders to trust we are doing the right thing by the environment, the right thing by all of our authorizations, for water supply, agricultural and municipal, for restoration purposes, for water supply, for flood control … that we are looking at this water pie and we’re going to take everyone into account.

“So trust me. That’s the government’s answer,” said Lt Col. Polk. “We are being as transparent as possible.”

The Hebert Hoover Dike is a non-CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) activity, he said. LOSOM is not part of CERP, he added.

He said the Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual (LOSOM) which will go into effect when the dike repairs are complete at the end of 2022, will take the additional storage in the C-44 reservoir and the C-43 reservoir into account, but will not include the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir or the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP) in their calculations.

Once the northern and southern features are online, the lake schedule will be adjusted again, he explained.

He said the water storage projects, especially those north and south of the lake are needed to provide storage for the excess water that is discharged east and west to tide under LORS. Lt. Col. Polk said they expect to adjust the schedule about once a decade.

“Once we have all of those components on line, that’s when we can implement,” he said.

The C-43 and C-44 projects will be included in the LOSOM evaluation because they are under construction, he said.

“With the improvements to the dike, we will also be looking at how high we can take it,” he added. The EAA reservoir will not come on line until at least 2028, he said. He said they will probably come out with another lake schedule around 2032.

He expects the lake level to be lower than 12 feet about once every 10 years. “About every decade you would see Lake Okeechobee have a draw down. That’s essentially what we were doing last year,” Lt. Col. Polk explained. He said they expected more rain during the last wet season, and instead had the driest September on record.

“Mother Nature – she has the final say,” he said.

Lt. Col. Polk said the dike repairs are on schedule. Last summer’s low lake level allowed some of the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to recover. Due to the damage from Hurricane Irma, the lake’s SAV had declined from about 40,000 acres to about 5,000 acres, he explained. The most recent survey found about 26,000 acres of SAV on the Big O, he said. “It is a very delicate balance,” said Lt. Col. Polk.

“There is so much uncertainty coming into the new plan, and changing the time line,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. “Five years ago, we weren’t talking about an EAA reservoir.

“The corps’ ability to just come in last year and decide to do a deviation – originally with no public input – that leaves a whole lot of insecurity for western Palm Beach County,” she said. There are concerns for municipal water users as well as the agricultural community, she explained.

“We are asking you to trust us,” said Lt. Col. Polk. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have.”

Commissioner McKinlay said she trusts the lieutenant colonel, “but there are a whole lot of other people and influences behind you.”

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