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Environment

After Months Of Meetings, New Plan To Manage Lake Okeechobee Continues To Raise Concerns

The Army Corps commander overseeing the new plan said Monday that a version of the plan, unveiled in June, will be tweaked but remain largely unchanged.

A new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to manage Lake Okeechobee over the next decade continues to draw criticism for doing too little to restore the environment while protecting water supply.

After months of meeting with communities around the nation’s 10th largest lake, Corps officials said this week there were limits to how much they would change the plan.

“Absolutely no intent to start over,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district that oversees the region, in a briefing Monday to explain the next stage in writing the operation manual. “We are building upon the [plan] in order to get every ounce of benefit.”

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The change in operations will coincide with nearly $2 billion in repairs to the aging Herbert Hoover Dike and will keep the lake more than a foot higher for parts of the year. A higher lake will allow the Corps to cut back on flushing polluted lake water to northern estuaries during the wet season. Those releases can trigger toxic algae blooms, an increasing problem as climate change warms the planet.

For most of the year, the plan calls for aiming to operate the lake above 13 feet and just below 17 feet. The current plan tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet to protect the fragile dike. Problems — such as polluted releases to estuaries or water shortages — happen during the rainy season when the 730-square-mile lake climbs too high or dries out during winter months.

Critics say keeping the lake higher could kill off underwater plants that help clean water. A deeper lake is also more turbid and can stir up layers of polluted muck at the bottom during storms.

“There’s already a fraction of the vegetation since [Hurricane] Irma,” said Newton Cook, president of the United Waterfowlers of Florida. “If you kill the vegetation in the lake, then you’re just going to have a mudhole ... and all the water that goes east, west, south, wherever you send it, it’s going to be a polluted and a disaster.”

Communities along the Caloosahatchee River, and around Pine Island Sound, say the plan also continues to unfairly use the river as a relief valve when waters rise too high — while sparing the east coast.

“There’s a misperception that one of the reasons the Caloosahatchee gets excess water is for beneficial low flows and that is patently incorrect,” said Susan Gray, a former bureau chief for the South Florida Water Management District representing Lee County, Sanibel and Cape Coral. “There needs to be a much great consideration as to what can be done to improve distribution.”

Under the plan, the lake would be flushed to the St. Lucie Estuary on the east coast, which has lost acres of seagrass and endured repeated toxic blooms, only if lake levels rise above 16 feet and no other options are available for lowering the lake.

Col. Kelly said Monday releases to the Caloosahatchee would be slightly reduced, but moving water west would still be a year-round option and that the operation manual would spell out terms that would try to eliminate the most punishing releases.

“You heard where our focus is, especially on the high end and the really stressful releases to the Caloosahatchee,” he said.

During the dry season, the standoff continues between protecting water supply and providing water for environmental restoration.

As the lake dries out, the Corps would stop sending water to Everglades marshes if lake levels drop to 13 feet. However, water conservation rules for farms and utilities would not start until levels drop to below 12 feet for most of the year.

Both the Everglades Foundation, Friends of the Everglades and other environmental groups — along with Rep. Brian Mast, a Fort Pierce Republican — have raised concerns about the plan specifically guaranteeing to maintain or improve water supply while not spelling out a similar gain for restoration efforts.

“It’s hard to not see that as prioritizing water supply in the [Everglades Agricultural Area] over reducing damage to the St. Lucie [Estuary],” said Brad Stewart, Mast’s deputy chief of staff.

Improving water supply doesn’t even appear to be an issue, he said, pointing to a 2019 University of Florida report that found no losses in crop production from water shortages since the 1980s.

“Not only does the [plan] maintain that performance, but it actually improves performance over current operations for the dry season….So it’s already out of whack,” said Stewart. “So they’ve more or less gotten every drop of water they have needed.”

The Corps plans to finish writing the operational manual by October so that it can be reviewed for environmental impacts beginning in February.

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