There’s still time to comment on Lake Okeechobee level changes

OKEECHOBEE — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still accepting public comments as input on the development for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. The public comment period has been extended to April 22.

The corps plans to switch from the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which tries to keep the lake level between 12.5 and 15 ft., when repairs are complete to the Herbert Hoover Dike. At that time, the corps will regulate the big lake based on the new Lake Okeechobee System Operations Manual (LOSOM). The dike repairs are expected to be completed in 2022.

Meetings have been held around the state to gather public input about the lake level schedule.

An Audubon study found levels above 16 ft. to be harmful to the lake’s ecology because high lake levels destroy the vegetation in the marshy areas around the lake’s edges. The marshes help filter the lake water, and provide spawning areas for fish and habitat for wading birds.

Lake Okeechobee area community leaders have called for decisions to be based on “science, not politics.”

Congressman Brian Mast has pushed for a plan that would bring the lake to 10.5 ft. before the start of the wet season, which he claims will allow enough capacity in the lake for wet season flow to prevent the need for harmful discharges to coastal estuaries in the wet season.

Palm Beach County passed a resolution in opposition to Congressman Mast’s plan “as it would induce drought conditions, affect the ability to deliver water to critical ecosystems and result in significant environmental damage. Furthermore, this drastic lowering would result in increased risk of saltwater intrusion into coastal well fields — harming freshwater supplies — and negatively impact recreational and commercial fishing on Lake Okeechobee.”

Boaters have voiced concerns about navigation if the lake is below 12 ft. If the level in Lake Okeechobee falls below 12 ft., the South Florida Water Management District closes four locks on the lake’s north shore: The S-135 structure at J&S Fish Camp; the G-36 structure at Henry Creek; the S-127 structure at Buckhead Ridge; and, the S-131 structure at Lakeport. These locks are not safe for boats if water levels are below 12 ft.

This map shows navigation locks that could be closed or see operating hours reduced because of low water levels in Lake Okeechobee. Special to the Lake Okeechobee New/SFWMD

If the lake falls below 11 ft., the SFWMD must also close the S-193 lock at Taylor Creek. At the 10.5 ft. level, the Lake Okeechobee Waterway would not be navigable.

Those who were not able to give their comments at public meetings may still do so by mail or email. According to the Corps of Engineers, emailed and written comments will be given the same consideration as comments given at the public meetings.

Email comments 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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