Governor calls for lower lake

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is promoting a plan to lower the minimum level of the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to 10.5 feet.

At a press conference at Florida Holiday Park on Jan. 28, the governor explained: “I have engaged with the president on him instructing the Army Corps to manage this lake differently than they have managed it. They can manage it as low as 10.5 feet with no law or regulation. If they can get to 10.5 feet by May, you may not have to do discharges at all.”

The current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) ranges from a minimum level of 12.5 feet to a maximum of 15.5 feet.

What would a LORS of 10.5 to 15.5 feet mean to the big lake?

“I think his recommendation is fine, but on the edge of too low,” said Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon. “We do need, and my ideal goal, would be for the lake to get to the 11-foot range to let light reach the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) zone (about 9-11 feet bottom elevation). We had more than 40,000 acres of SAV in 2012, and now we are down to about 5,000 acres. Letting light hit the 9-11 foot zone would germinate new seeds and give us a start on recovery.

“Going to 10.5 feet is close enough to 11 feet, but going below that would start to be problematic for the lake — it would dry the zone we are trying to rehabilitate,” he continued.

“And obviously navigation is going to be severely hampered by 11 or 10.5 feet,” Dr. Gray added.

He said an occasional year with an extreme low level of 10.5 feet could help restore the SAV, but “normally we don’t want the lake to drop below 12 feet.”
Dropping the minimum level to 10.5 feet could also mean an increased risk of water shortages for the residents of the lower east coast, who depend on Lake Okeechobee to recharge the aquifers used for their drinking water supply.

Putting the numbers into a computer formula that helps determine when and where water should be released is one thing. Raising and lowering the lake is another. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the SFWMD can’t control when rain will fall, or where, or how much. They can control how much water flows out of the big lake east, west and south, but they can’t control how much water evaporates into the air or percolates into the earth.

Consider: On a sunny, cloudless day, more water can evaporate from the surface of the big lake than could be moved out by water managers with all of the floodgates open and pumps running full blast. Since the start of the dry season, even though more water has been flowing into the lake from the north than being released west or south, the lake level has been dropping.

(No water has been released to the St. Lucie Canal since the dry season started.)

While they try to anticipate weather patterns, during a drought, water managers can’t stop the lake level from dropping. After a hurricane, they can’t stop it from rising. Water managers and the corps can set a target. But they can only make an educated guess about when and how much rain will fall. And sometimes they guess wrong.

The previous lake schedule didn’t stop the lake level from dropping to 8.8 feet in 2007.

Under the current 12.5 to 15.5 feet schedule, adopted in 2008, the lake exceeded the maximum level many times, most recently topping 17 feet in 2017 due to Hurricane Irma.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invites the public to provide scoping input on the development of the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). A series of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public scoping meetings will be held throughout South Florida during the month of February and public scoping comments will be accepted until March 31.

Lake Okeechobee area meetings are planned for:

• Wednesday, Feb. 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Indian River State College Williamson Conference and Education Center, 2229 N.W. Ninth Ave., Okeechobee; and,

• Monday, Feb. 11, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the John Boy Auditorium, 1200 South W.C. Owen Ave., Clewiston, 33440.

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

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