Mast argues for lower lake level

OKEECHOBEE — Congressman Brian Mast’s proposal to lower Lake Okeechobee to 8 ft. in the dry season to prevent wet season releases to the coastal estuaries was the topic of discussion at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District briefing on Aug. 17 in Stuart City Hall.

Ernie Marks, South Florida Water Management District Executive Director, said trying to lower the lake to 8 ft. would be dangerous for South Florida.

“What are the consequences of lowering the lake below 9 ft. by the end of the dry season?

We can’t get there with the infrastructure we have in place today. So what do we have to do? We have to send more water west and more water east,” he explained.

“We’ve got to send significant amounts during times you normally don’t receive it, and more frequently,” he said.

The infrastructure needed to send more water south is planned but not yet funded.

“We need the additional infrastructure. We need the additional projects so we have the ability to do that,” he said.

Such a move would impact the water supply not only south of the lake, but also for the lower east coast, he said.

There is a high level of risk forcing the lake down to 9 ft. he warned. “There is no guarantee when the rain will fall which can result in a drought,” he said.

Such a drought would cause the lake to fall to 7 ft., or lower which would mean SFWMD could not send any lake water to any of the users. There would be no water availability for all users, including the environment, he said.

Such a drought would mean long-term impacts to fish and wildlife, he said. The SFWMD would not be able to deliver water to the Seminole Tribal lands. The water shortage would hurt residents and businesses from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys, he said.

There would be no water to fight fires.

With no backup water supply from the lake, the Everglades would be at high risk of muck fires, which would destroy wildlife habit, he said.

With no flow from the lake, the Caloosahatchee River would no longer be navigable, Mr. Marks said.

In May 2007 during the drought that took the lake below 9 ft., “we had emergency orders to move water 20 miles from an existing reservoir to West Palm Beach. Their normal source of water is rainfall and backup of Lake Okeechobee.

“Basically underground, you have a freshwater lens and a saltwater lens,” he explained.

“The saltwater lens was at risk to move. (In hydrology a lens is a convex layer of fresh groundwater that floats on top of denser saltwater.)

“Once that saltwater lens moves too far to the west, you lose your wellfields,” he said.
When utilities lose their wellfields, they have to rely on reverse osmosis, he added.

Mr. Marks said the solution to reducing lake releases to the coastal estuaries lies in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) plans which were approved but are awaiting federal funding. Short term, there are some solutions that could help reduce the releases until the CERP projects are built, he added.

“We need to look at continued support and funding of short-term solutions,” he said, including dispersed water management projects both public and private and estuary protection wells.

“Long term, we need to look at Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project,” he said, which will include both above-ground storage and Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells.

He said they need funding for the EAA reservoir, which has been approved by the Corps and is waiting for federal funding.

He said they also need to focus awareness on the northern Everglades storage projects.

Congressman Mast continued to argue to lower the level of the lake during the dry season.

“There are consequences with low water levels, he said. “But there are consequences with high water levels,” he said.

He said the Corps’ top priority is the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

“Every inch of water off Lake Okeechobee means less risk,” he said.

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