Okeechobee officials critical of army corps lake proposals

OKEECHOBEE — On Aug. 6 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed changes to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule that would allow more flexibility in the operation of Lake Okeechobee releases when harmful algal blooms are present.

The corps is allowing 15 days for any public comments on the changes, but local officials in Okeechobee are concerned that timespan is too short considering the negative consequences these changes could have for residents around the lake.

During the public comment section of the Aug. 8 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Economic Council of Okeechobee Chairman Jeff Sumner spoke to commissioners about the proposed changes.

“They are looking at a full plan deviation similar to the operational flexibility they used this past year where they lowered the lake though increased discharges in the dry season,” said Mr. Sumner of the corps’ 183-page proposal. “Obviously letting water out during the dry season when you don’t need to raises a big concern for water supply. The Economic Council has sent a letter out asking the corps give at least 90 days to review the changes. Frankly, 15 days to review that document is a little insulting.”

Under the new proposals, algal blooms, or even the potential of algal blooms, would become a trigger for when or when not to release water. The specific language of the proposal states that the corps would be able to utilize this increased flexibility to keep the lake lower if an algae bloom has occurred during the last 18 months within Lake Okeechobee. That would essentially make the increased flexibility a permanent feature of the corps operating plan going forward.

A lower lake level would affect recreational access to the lake and cause issues with the water supply for surrounding counties. If the corps is wrong about how much water the area gets during the next rainy season and releases too much water from the lake during the dry season, that could lead to widespread water shortages and water rationing.

“The Treasure Coast Council of Local Governments has also voted to write a letter to the corps,” said Commissioner Bradly Goodbread. “These letters put us on record of being against it but I feel like it’s a waste of time. Gov. DeSantis and Rep. Mast are running this show now. Doesn’t matter what everybody wants or needs. Brian Mast has already said he doesn’t care if the lake goes dry, so we need something stronger to get their attention.”

The proposed changes by the corps were also a topic on the Okeechobee City Council meeting on Aug. 6.

“In my opinion this is a political move by a certain congressman and the governor to make changes to the lake level,” said Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford. “I can’t believe the corps would even consider doing that.”

Florida Farm Bureau Assistant Director of Government and Community Affairs Gary Ritter was in attendance at the city council meeting and also spoke about the proposed changes.

“Let’s say this is as much rain as we’re going to get this year and we’re up to a level of about twelve and a half by the end of the rainy season when really we wanted to be at fifteen and a half,” said Mr. Ritter. “By next spring we could be having water supply issues if there’s not much more rain.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will hear public comments on the proposed changes until Aug. 21. Comments will be accepted in writing by mail at Jacksonville District Corps of Engineers, 701 San Marco Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32207-8175 and by email at Melissa.a.nasuti@usace.army.mil.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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