The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual
The relationship between water quality and Florida’s economy has never been more apparent than it is today. The lost summers of 2013, 2016, and 2018 were beyond challenging for the coastal communities situated along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Countless images on social media of guacamole-like algae in our rivers and canals and piles of dead marine life scattered along our beaches do not capture the impacts that poor water quality is having on our communities.
On Sanibel Island, we removed more than 850,000 pounds of dead marine life from our beaches. Our local Chamber of Commerce reported lost revenue from July–December of more than $46.8 million, with lodging cancellation rates at 78%. Cape Coral endured months of toxic blue-green algae blooms that clogged up canals and incited public health concerns. Other communities in Lee and Martin counties experienced similar impacts. One of the most common questions that I receive from residents, business owners, and visitors is: How could our State and federal government allow polluted water from Lake Okeechobee to be discharged to our estuaries? The response that I often receive from water managers is: This is how the system was designed (part of the Central and Southern Florida Project) and nothing can be done until the projects outlined in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are completed. That answer is no longer acceptable! Our communities cannot wait another 20+ years.
There is an opportunity for near-term relief to the plight of our estuaries. The U.S. Army Corps recently kicked off a series of public meetings to gather input on development of a new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), now referred to as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). LOSOM will provide guidance to the Army Corps on how to manage lake levels for multiple purposes, including the lake ecology, water supply for agricultural, urban and environmental uses, and it will establish criteria for releases to the estuaries.
Lake Okeechobee discharges have the single greatest impact on water quality in our estuaries during wet periods. Changes to the way the lake is managed could provide immediate relief to our coastal communities. The reality is, according to the current schedule, there is no single CERP project that will provide immediate relief from the harmful discharges. On the other hand, modifying the lake schedule to maintain water levels lower and providing beneficial water releases to the Caloosahatchee and other natural systems when needed would reduce the volume of water that must be discharged in the wet season.
Some interests would like to maintain the status quo or even exacerbate water quality problems within the lake and our estuaries by holding the lake higher. They propose going back to the Water Supply and Environment (WSE) Lake Regulation Schedule—the schedule that preceded LORS 2008. This would be a huge mistake for Florida’s economy, and the health, safety and welfare of people that live, work and recreate on Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries. The WSE schedule held the lake much higher than the current schedule, resulting in devastating impacts to the ecology of the lake and its water quality. It also cut off beneficial flows to the estuaries when conditions were dry, holding significantly more water in the lake for water supply. When conditions were wet, it allowed for higher releases to the estuaries, compared to LORS 2008. See Audubon Florida’s “Setting the Record Straight – A Deeper Lake Okeechobee is More Dangerous, Dirtier, and Unhealthy.”
The Corps is proposing completion of LOSOM in 2022. The health of our communities cannot wait until 2022! The LOSOM process must be accelerated and should not be held back by the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs—especially those components of LOSOM that reduce risk to the dike by maintaining the lake lower. As part of LOSOM, the Corps should also do a thorough evaluation and modeling of each of the lake water management bands, including the Beneficial Use and Water Shortage Management bands. We must reevaluate where flows are measured in the Caloosahatchee to ensure that watershed runoff is taken into consideration when distributing flows. The new schedule must be equitable for all affected communities and stakeholders.
The Corps is holding several public scoping meetings during the next two weeks on the east coast of Florida. The deadline for providing comments to the Corps is March 31.
About the Author:
Kevin Ruane is the Mayor of the City of Sanibel, President-elect of the Florida League of Mayors, and a local business owner. Mayor Ruane has served as Mayor of the City of Sanibel since 2010 and has been a member of the Sanibel City Council since February 2007. Mayor Ruane was the recipient of the prestigious Everglades Coalition James D. Webb public service award in 2016, and in 2017 was awarded the Florida League of Cities Home Rule Hero award for his efforts on water quality and home rule advocacy.