Public Weighs In
The United States Army Corps of Engineers is in the early stages of the process to replace its Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) that it developed and implemented in 2008, with a Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) that it hopes to put in place by 2022. The initial part of that process is to gather public input for the LOSOM program, with the Army Corps hosting the first two sessions on Tuesday afternoon and evening, February 5, at the Lee County Mosquito Control District Training Center in Lehigh Acres. The two presentations were identical, provided at different times to allow as many residents as possible to attend.
Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Reynolds, Commander of the Army Corps’ South District, welcomed the standing-room-only crowd during the afternoon session that exceeded 250 people. “The LOSOM is a critical component of the Central & Southern Florida System Operating Plan, and we host these Public Scoping Meetings to receive the maximum opportunity for public comment. We understand the water conditions from last summer made you mad and frustrated, and we share your frustrations, so we are here to learn your ideas. One thing you already made clear is why we are having today’s sessions all the way out here and not closer to the coast, like in Fort Myers or Cape Coral, so we are exploring possible venues in those areas, so if you have any suggestions, please let us know.”
Colonel Reynolds stated that the Army Corps will not wait for the LOSOM to come online in 2022 before it starts to implement water control changes. “We are already making adjustments; we have moved more water south in the past year than we ever did before, and are releasing more water down the Caloosahatchee River during this dry season than under the LORS schedule. We are working closely with our associates on both coasts to provide better benefits to your communities as well as to the Everglades, in advance of the upcoming hurricane season, because you voiced your concerns about all of these things. That is what the LOSOM process is all about; to implement a new schedule based on clarity, with the priorities that you and your public officials tell us. This is more than just a name change; this is a change in how we manage water across the entire system.”
Army Corps Project Manager Tim Gysan stated that the new LOSOM guidelines will work in conjunction with projects already or soon to be under construction, such as the Herbert Hoover Dike modifications around Lake Okeechobee and the C-43 and C-44 storage reservoirs to the east and west of the Lake. “The LOSOM is a four-year process, with these Scoping Meetings now, workshops from May through August with additional public comment, alternative evaluation workshops from late 2019 through 2021, a draft report in May 2022, and the final report in September 2022, with public comment every step of the way, so you will have plenty of times to have your voice heard and state your priorities on how the system will work.”
Gysan reminded the audience that “Lake Okeechobee has many stakeholders, with interests across a lot of counties, with many different uses, and not all of those are in common, so we recognize that upfront. To some it is flood control, others want water for the environment, and still others see it as an agricultural need, so in the upcoming workshops, you will see models on how we hope to arrange tradeoffs to work with all of those operations and more. We will accept input through March 31, so if you would like to submit additional information in writing or know someone who would like to participate but cannot attend any of the Scoping Meetings, please see the process at www.saj.usace.army/mil/LOSOM and email comments to LakeOcomments@usace.army/mil.”
Can’t Wait until 2022
Before taking “Public Comment” from the general audience, Army Corps administrators first allowed many of the local government officials in attendance to speak first. While Army Corps representatives asked each speaker to limit their comments to 2-minutes, due to the large number of people who wished to speak during the two-hour session, many exceeded that amount.
“I represent 200,000 Cape Coral residents,” said Mayor Joe Coviello. “The first step you must take is relief from Blue-Green Algae that plagued our canals last summer. Unless you experienced it first-hand, you cannot understand how bad it smelled, and how it negatively affected our real estate market, tourism and economic development. We needs solutions a lot quicker than 2022 and it seems like releasing more Lake water during the dry season are simple fixes we can employ today, rather than reviewing things we already know for another 30 to 35 months, as that is too long, as the last thing I want again is Blue-Green Algae floating down Cape Coral canals and the Caloosahatchee River. I am encouraged by new Governor Ron DeSantis’ shake-up of the South Florida Water Management District Board (SFWMD), as the new representatives will provide oversight for our coastal communities, so we are treated as a priority and not a red-headed step-child!”
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane said, “2018 was a catastrophic year, with 89 days under emergency conditions and 852,000 pounds of dead fish washed up on our beaches, proving the current system does not work! We can’t wait until 2022 for things to improve, as that thinking is bizarre; we need very explicit changes to produce dramatic impacts now. Implementing the same things over and again for the next four years is the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results! I assure you our economy and environment are just as important as anyone else’s, so we need a ‘shared adversity’ rather than the coasts experiencing all the negative impacts. LORS began in 2008 as a two-year schedule that you want to extend to 14 years; show some courage and do something bold, to make positive changes effective immediately!”
“Listen to our local environmental and water experts,” implored Fort Myers Beach Mayor Tracey Gore. “They study this day-in and day-out, no one knows it better than them, and they are so smart! I am more than just the Mayor of Fort Myers Beach; I am a Mom and my family is in the shrimping business so I am concerned for my kids as well as our bottom line. Fort Myers Beach is my lifelong home and we cannot allow our island, water and canals to be trashed like they were last summer; we must act now!”
Sanibel Council Member Chauncey Goss is one of Governor DeSantis’ new SFWMD Board appointees. “I am a Southwest Florida resident for over 50 years and have never seen our water so bad. It is clear LORS is not working, as three of the last six years translated into a devastating environment and equally bad losses to our local economies. Then there are the impacts to our health and no one seems to be paying attention to that, so I ask the Army Corps to examine the impacts to our health, as you cannot ignore that. There is no doubt that cyanobacteria and Red Tide are toxic and we should not be breathing them! A critical component to success is to not look at just one thing but to balance everything, and LORS is not balanced.”
We Are Under Attack!
The remainder of the two-hour meeting was “Public Comment” from the audience. Thirty-seven people spoke, including Fort Myers Beach Council member Bruce Butcher, who chose to participate in this segment rather than with the other public officials. Perhaps because his slant was so unique, Butcher received one of the loudest and longest rounds of applause during the entire program.
“We are under attack and when we are under attack, who defends us – The Army! Well, we are under attack, so forget all these studies and let’s get going and get it done! We need a balanced benefit for everyone and not suffering for a few. I come from a business and manufacturing background and see the C-43 Reservoir as a boondoggle that will not benefit us, so there must be better and quicker ways to use billions of dollars in a time-sensitive manner. Our local fishing is terrible; I moved to Florida to enjoy the water and we used to go out 25 miles and everyone would catch our limit of grouper; yesterday we went 50 miles out and got one combined grouper and that is just crazy, as they dump dirty water over here and that make no sense to me! In my view, we have enough sugar in this world, with people eating too much sugar, so we need more clean water and that ought to be the priority. We need clean water now and the Army needs to attack this problem now – let’s get it fixed; no more need to wait!”
By Gary Mooney