LOWP plan could cut harmful Lake Okeechobee releases to Treasure Coast estuaries

OKEECHOBEE — Why are ‘environmentalists’ ignoring the importance of storage and treatment north of Lake Okeechobee?

I have been writing about Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee and Everglades water quality issues for 30 years. For at least that many years, scientists have known the phosphorus levels going into the lake are too high.

Unfortunately, in the past three decades, despite restrictions on runoff from agriculture and Departure of Environment Regulation rules that forced most of the dairy industry out of the watershed, the phosphorus loading hasn’t decreased.

As development increases north of the Lake in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, more and more people are moving into the Kissimmee River basin. People change the environment around them. More people mean more stress on the natural system. It’s human nature, but it can also mean more and more pollution in the runoff that winds up in the waterways.

Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Florida Everglades. It is part and parcel of the backup water supply for the southern half of the state. The health of the Big O should be of interest to everyone in South Florida.

For the past 20 years, water storage projects have been underway south, east and west of the big lake. So when storage north of the lake — which would make it possible to clean the water before it goes into Lake Okeechobee — was finally in the planning phases last year, I expected the environmentalists to rejoice.

Instead, they seem less than enthused.

Earthjustice, an environmental law organization which went to court to fight backpumping of polluted water into the lake from the south, has shown little interest in stopping the pollution coming into the lake from the north. I called them for a quote about the northern storage plans and the response was that they are not supporting northern storage at this time. Why not? The spokesperson did not elaborate.

I find no mention of the LOWP report on websites devoted to environmental issues.

I have to wonder why.

Still, for most of the past 30 years, meetings about watershed issues have drawn little attention from the media. It has not been unusual for me to be the only reporter to attend a Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Plan meeting. And after sitting through hours of Power Point presentations, I usually have to find a friendly scientist to explain it to me in layman’s terms after the meeting. I can understand why broadcast media don’t bother showing up. They’re looking for sound bites, not science and statistics.

With little fanfare, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project (LOWP) team has gone forward with study, testing and planning.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the LOWP goals are:
• Improve the quality, quantity, timing and distribution of water entering Lake Okeechobee;

• Provide for better management of lake water levels;

• Reduce the high-volume discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries downstream of the lake; and,

• Improve system-wide operational flexibility.

On March 8, the LOWP researchers announced they believe a reservoir north of the lake, combined with aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells, can reduce the lake releases to the coastal estuaries by more than 60 percent!

More importantly, since many years we simply do not receive enough rain to require any coastal releases, the LOWP projects are projected to decrease the number of years with damaging discharges by more than half, giving the estuaries more time to recover.

That means 60 percent less water during years in which there are discharges AND fewer (by more than half) years that require ANY damaging discharges. (Note: The Calooshatchee River will always have some Lake Okeechobee discharges because that river depends on the lake for about half of its needed water supply. Not all lake discharges are damaging. Some are helpful.)

I expected that report to be greeted with celebration from the Treasure Coast communities.

It didn’t even make the nightly news.

I suspect most people living in those areas who experienced the problems with the 2016 lake releases haven’t even heard about the LOWP report. Aside from our own Independent News Media Florida websites, an online search only found one other news source (Sunshine State News) that even reported the March 8 LOWP announcement.

LOWP is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). CERP also includes an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir. With or without funding from Senate Bill 10, both projects are already approved and part of the CERP Integrated Delivery Schedule. Many thousands of acres of land have already been purchased for CERP.

South Florida Water Management District officials do not propose buying any more land at this time. In Senate Hearings SFWMD representatives said they believe they can use the land the state already owns, or else trade land the state owns for the property needed for the CERP projects.

But the “Buy the Land” campaign gets all the press attention, while LOWP is ignored.

Friends of Lake Okeechobee, where are you?

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