Work continues on new lake schedule

WEST PALM BEACH — The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual Project Delivery Team (PDT) continued the complicated process of finding the best balance for the lake regulation schedule at their Jan. 30 meeting at the South Florida Water Management District Office in West Palm Beach.

LOSOM objectives include:
• Manage risk to public health and safety, life and property;
• Continue to meet authorized purposes for navigation, recreation and flood control;
• Improve water supply performance; and,
• Enhance ecology in Lake Okeechobee, northern estuaries and across South Florida ecosystem.

The Project Delivery Team (PDT) for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating includes representatives from more than 80 government agencies and boards.

The goal is to complete the LOSOM process by October 2022 in time to implement the new schedule when Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are complete at the end of 2022.

Two important things included in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are storage north and south of the lake. Until those components are complete, any change to the operation of the lake is difficult, explained Tim Gysan, LOSOM project manager. Without the northern storage, the corps does not anticipate significantly changing the Lake Okeechobee schedule, he said.

“This is a multi-purpose lake so this requires a multi-criteria decision,” said Marci Jackson of the LOSOM Plan Formulation sub-team.

She said the corps in the planning mode to work out a strategy using a modeling tool that lets them examine consequences of various options.

“This tool is not going to make the decision for the decision makers,” she explained. “It’s a way to compare apples to oranges, qualitative against quantitative analysis.

“We have 30-50 performance measures that we will end up with at the end of the day,” she said.

“We value more than just money. Not all of our criteria is easy to quantify,” she explained. “This tool will help us sort through that information.”

“We need to distinguish between considerations and constraints ,” said Ann Hodgson, of the Environmental NEPA and Wildlife team, including dam safety risk, federal laws, the Seminole Water Rights Compact, the Endangered Species Act, and the capacity of major Lake Okeechobee outlets and downstream conveyances.

Performance measures include the frequency of extreme high and low water levels, wading bird nesting, submerged aquatic vegetation, emergent aquatic vegetation, the Everglades Snail Kite and impacts to cultural resources.

There is high interest in balancing out the effects in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, she said. Other considerations include the Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, Florida Bay, the Water Conservation Areas and Wildlife Management Areas.

Each alternative considered will be reviewed in regard to the four primary objectives.

“If the lake is healthy, the estuaries are going to be healthy,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers of Florida. If we don’t have a healthy lake, the estuaries are never going to be healthy. We are talking about the lake. We have to put that first. We’ve got to have water supply. It has to be healthy water.

Mr. Cook said that while about every five years, a draw down can benefit the ecology of the lake, trying to force the lake down to 10.5 feet every year would destroy it. “If you draw this lake down to 10.5 feet every year, thinking you will help the estuaries, you are wrong. You are dangerously wrong,” he said.

“We have to handle the entire food chain from the top down,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida.

“What we’re trying to do here is figure out how to manage the lake. There is a misnomer that water supply is all about agriculture. Lake Okeechobee affects groundwater south of the lake,” he said.

“That’s your drinking water if you live anywhere south of Lake Okeechobee,” she said explaining that Lake Okeechobee recharges the well fields and prevents saltwater intrusion.

“There is a lot to be said for taking care of the heart of the Everglades system,” she said.

Jessica Mallett of the LOSOM Modeling sub-team reviewed a series of “sensitivity runs” they conducted looking at various options such as what would happen if they stopped all flow at Port Mayaca; what would happen if they gave the Caloosahatchee a minimum of 650 cubic feet per second year round, using lake water as needed to supplement basin flow; what would happen if they lowered the lake to 10.5 feet by May 31; what would happen if they let the lake go above 17 feet.

Each option helped in one area while hurting others.

For example:
• Relaxing water shortage cutbacks creates adverse impacts to Lake Okeechobee.
• Lowering the lake to 10.5 feet by May 31 means significant increase in discharges to both east and west estuaries and decreases water supply.
• Cutting lake releases to the St. Lucie means increased damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee.
• Holding water in the lake above 16 feet increases the potential for lake algae blooms.
• Higher lake levels increase the dam safety risk.

The LOSOM PDT meetings will continue through April 2021. The Feb. 27 meeting will be an online web meeting. The March 31 meeting will be in Okeechobee.

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