Lake Okeechobee schedule should be based on science – not politics

OKEECHOBEE — Big Lake area residents Wednesday urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use science — not politics — to determine any changes to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).

The Williamson Conference Center at Indian River State College was packed to standing room only Feb. 6 for the Corps’ public scoping meeting to discuss the new operational plan, which will be called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it is important for those who live around Lake Okeechobee to make sure their voices are heard during the planning process.

“One of the reasons we changed the name LORS to LOSOM is because we know we have to think about this as a holistic system,” said Lt. Col. Reynolds.

“None of this operates independently and the water doesn’t care what our manual says. We are fundamentally changing the way we are managing water.”

She explained the priorities set by LOSOM will “determine what we do.”

“I know Corps is in a delicate position,” said Dowling Watford, mayor of the City of Okeechobee. “We have all of these competing interests.”

The coastal communities want “no lake discharges, period,” during the rainy season, he said.

“The lake level is important to us. If it gets below 12.5 we have navigation problems. It really affects our recreational fishermen,” Mayor Watford said.

He pointed out that the lake is also the primary source used by the Okeechobee Utility Authority.

He said lake area residents understand the natural cycle between flooding and drought. The Corps has a difficult task in maintaining that natural cycle while also addressing the needs of flood control, water supply, the environment and recreation.

“I encourage you to use science and not politics to determine how to do that,” he said. “We all know there has been a lot of pressure politically on the corps and the South Florida Water Management District.”

He said South Florida faces a wide range of water problems.

“There is no magic bullet,” said the mayor. “Changing the lake schedule is not going to solve the problems. We need to follow the science that has already been developed. We also have to keep in consideration the future growth of Florida, the growing population.

“I encourage you to use science for whatever solutions you come up with.”

Okeechobee City council member Bobby Keefe said he grew up in Okeechobee, fishing on the lake.

“I am familiar with military manuals,” said Mr. Keefe, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. “I caution the Corps of Engineers to listen very closely to those who are living in this arena, Lake Okeechobee, and how it affects us and how we operate and live in this environment.

“When you are far removed from the battlefield, it’s easy to throw out policy and procedure, but when your boots are on the ground, it is a different story.”

Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley cautioned against allowing the lake level to go too high or too low.

He said the current 12.5 to 15.5 ft. is appropriate.

“They tried to raise the lake years ago,” he said. “They raised the lake up to 18 feet and found all of the marshes were dying.

“Once you take it down to 10 ft. (as Gov. Ron DeSantis has recommended), if it doesn’t rain, it will drop to 6 ft. and then the whole coast will have salt water in their wells and need water.

“I don’t see that the schedule can change,” he said.

Eric Anthony, of Buckhead Ridge, said he has fished on the lake since 1969 and wintered in the lake area since 1978.

“I have seen a lot of change on the lake,” he said. “It needs to be done with science instead of who is getting their palm greased.”

He also cautioned that whatever plan is adopted, there will be unexpected circumstances to address.

“Something very unexpected is going to happen,” he said. “You have to be ready.”
John Pearce said too many developments have been built north of the lake in areas that were once wetlands.

The constant construction in the northern part of the Lake Okeechobee watershed means an increase in runoff, and increased nutrient load in the runoff.

“In St. Cloud and Kissimmee, the building never stops,” he said.

“Every day there is more water coming. There is no way to control it downstream,” Mr. Pearce said.

“The main problem is north,” he said. “You keep sending all that water south, the lake can’t take it.”

Mr. Pearce said the same thing is happening with increased development on the coast.

“You can’t keep filling in the wetlands. There is no where for the water to go,” he said.

“Our families in the Farm Bureau are well aware of complexities of managing Lake Okeechobee,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau. “Our policies support state and federal programs as long as they are based on sound science and engineering principals and not on emotion.”

Mr. Ritter said the new regulation schedule must balance the needs for flood control, water supply, recreation, navigation, and fish and wildlife.

“Reduction in lake releases should not be the only objective,” he said.

Excessive low lake low lake levels can adversely affect habitat and endangered species, he continued.

The new schedule must also accommodate future water supply needs and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

“Take the time to develop a schedule that meets all of the needs, based on real science,” he told the Corps.

Fisherman David Walker said navigation is difficult if the lake goes below 12.5 ft.

“I realize there are many different reasons why they have to maintain different levels on the lake. The water level of 15.5 to 12.5, I think is perfect. If they get it down to 10 ft., places that we fish now would be bone dry.”

“I would encourage you to not bow to political pressures to run the lake lower. Make sure the process is based on sound science,” said Jeff Sumner, chair of the Economic Council of Okeechobee.

“Lake Okeechobee is the lifeblood of all of our communities,” said Johnny Burroughs, commissioner city of Belle Glade.

“It supports agriculture. It is the primary driver of our tourism.

He said some people rely on the fish they catch in the lake as a food source.

“We invite others to come to our community, to see what it is like to be a farmer, to fish the lake, to see what a real natural nature preserve is like.

“It’s a totally different experience that what the city boys have on the coast,” Mr. Burroughs said.

Phil Baughman said changing the lake schedule will not fix the problems on the east coast.

“Don’t ruin our lake to try to appease somebody,” he said.

“Overall you are in a precarious position where you are being pulled a lot of different ways,” said rancher Brad Phares “I’m not sure people on the coast understand that. I’m not sure they want to understand it.

“The lake should be managed based on science and the historical data you have been able to amass, instead of succumbing to the Johnny-come-lately politicians who don’t know the science,” he said. “If we just worry about bureaucrats and pandering to votes it’s going to be detrimental to everyone.”

Keith Pearce said his family has lived on their ranch on the shore of Lake Okeechobee for more than 100 years.

“We have seen the water go up. We have seen the water go down,” he said.

He said the Herbert Hoover Dike and the channelization of the Kissimmee River are the roots of the current problems.

“The natural level of Lake Okeechobee before the dike ran from 12 to 15 ft.,” he said. He said the water sheet flowed into the lake slowly, and was filtered by vegetation before it entered the lake.

“This whole problem has been created by the actions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District,” he said.

“Putting everybody around this lake out of business is not going to solve this problem.

“You are not going to solve it by going lower with the lake. Start in Orlando. Stop the drainage and everything being dumped into that lake.”

John Hayford, executive director of the Okeechobee Utility Authority, said OUA has two water intakes in the lake. One is at 6 ft. elevation and one at 0 ft.

He explained that just because the lake level is higher than the intake that does not mean water can get to the intake.

“Our issue is more inclined toward the sedimentation,” he said. The elevation of the shoals within the lake are unknown. He said sandbars, land bridges and build up of deposits of sediment could keep water from reaching the OUA intakes if the lake level is lowered.

“The lake is a natural system,” said Matt Pearce of Pearce Cattle Company in Glades County.

“It’s going to go up and it’s going to go down.”

He said a congressman is “bullying a lot of the folks in the interior.

“What do we do to combat that. We have to get up and speak. I see us all in this together.

This needs to be a science-based effort.”

Mr. Pearce said the Congressman (Brian Mast) keeps spreading misinformation about “toxic” releases.

Okeechobee residents use the lake as their drinking water supply, he noted,

“I don’t know of anybody’s funeral because of the lake water,” he said.

Algae is in the water naturally. In hot weather, if water isn’t moving, and if there is sufficient nutrient load in the water, the algae will reproduce rapidly into a “bloom.” He said he has seen an algae bloom in a livestock watering trough.

“The algae comes when you don’t move the water,” he said. “That’s what the people on the coast don’t understand.”

“The lake needs to be healthy,” said Mike Krause of Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters. “In order to keep the lake healthy, the water levels need to go down and come back up. At operating levels of 12.5 to 15.5, you’d think the water is a little high, it could come down.

“You guys have to guess at what mother nature is going to do,” he told Corps officials.

“Right now the lake needs to go down below 12 ft. so the lake can clean up.”

Dr. Paul Gray of Audubon Florida said Audubon has had full-time staff here since 1936.

“I have been working on the lake about 30 years,” he said. This is the fifth lake regulation schedule developed in that time.

“This lake is down, but it’s not out,” he said. “Our voices need to be heard. We need this lake managed better.”

The Corps plans additional public meetings about LOSOM:

• Clewiston: Monday, Feb. 11, 6 to 8 p.m., in John Boy Auditorium, 1200 South W.C. Owen Ave, Clewiston, FL 33440;
• Stuart: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., in Indian River State College’s Clare and Gladys Wolf High-Technology Center, 2400 S.E. Salerno Road, Stuart, FL 34997;
• Broward County: Tuesday, Feb. 26, place and time to be announced:
• West Palm Beach: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 6 to 8 p.m. in the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Auditorium, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach, FL 33406;
• Miami Gardens: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the North Dade Regional Library, 2455 N.W. 183rd St., Miami Gardens, FL 33056.

The Corps believes this effort will benefit significantly from public involvement and encourages participation in the NEPA scoping process. The Corps welcomes your views, comments, concerns, suggestions and solutions. Scoping comments may be provided during public meetings, via email or by mail.

The public comment period ends on March 31. Those who cannot attend one of the meetings or do not wish to comment in a public meeting are encouraged to send in written comments.

• Submit comments by email to: LakeOComments@usace.army.mil.
• Submit comments by mail to: Dr. Ann Hodgson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville

District, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019.

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

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