Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual Workshop
The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) from the Jacksonville District hosted a public meeting at the Cape Vineyard Community Church on Monday, September 16, to gather input as it works on producing the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), to provide updated water management guidelines for Lake Okeechobee after several additional integrated water management projects come online by the end of 2022. Roughly 60 people attended the session, including Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello and South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chair Chauncey Goss of Sanibel.
“This is the continuation of the process that the Army Corps began back when we hosted Scoping Meetings in February and March of this year,” said Tim Gysan, USACE Project Manager for the LOSOM program. “The purpose is to get together with as many stakeholders as possible, to gather information, so that is why we are doing this today. We will take your detailed feedback and incorporate that in the Army Corps process to move the LOSOM effort forward into a planning framework.”
“LOSOM will review the operational metrics of Lake Okeechobee when the current operational process, the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS), that began in 2008 will no longer be valid by the end of 2022, when new Lake Okeechobee management projects come online,” Gysan continued. “This is not a forum where we will discuss any new infrastructure projects for Lake Okeechobee management, but strictly on developing a new operational plan for the Lake once current ones under construction are complete, to implement the new LOSOM schedule to move forward.”
Gysan explained why the USACE is doing this now. “LORS will need revision when two things happen by the end of 2022: the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee will be complete, and the C-44 Reservoir will be done, so this is the time to revise that schedule when that new infrastructure will be in place. Our Project Delivery Team works with over 60 agencies throughout the State, all of whom have an operational interest in Lake Okeechobee, as well as the opinions of the general public. From the Scoping Meetings earlier this year, we received over 8,000 individual comments from all over the State, and in my 19 years with the Army Corps, we never received that kind of input and interest in any prior project, and that shows how many people Lake Okeechobee impacts. Many would like to see us work through this process faster, but it takes time to digest all that material.”
Part of that process, Gysan said, “is that, depending on where you live in the State, your priorities for Lake Okeechobee are different. Those who are from Florida’s west coast tend to want us to accelerate the LOSOM schedule, lower the lake level, move more water south, and to focus on human health issues as well as the health of the ecosystem, particularly over Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). Those who live south of the Lake favor taking our time with LOSOM and produce it based on sound science and not on political considerations, maintain the Lake at higher water levels, and improve the flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay. People on the east coast want us to accelerate LOSOM, want both higher and lower Lake levels, and to focus on human health issues, water supply and water quality, and economic issues. While it is really great to see so many people of diverse interests engaged in this effort, this means we have folks who want the Lake higher and lower, and want the LOSOM process to move faster and slower, depending on where you live, so it is a challenge to come up with a solution that will benefit everyone in the State. We are still working through this process, to formulate specifics, so we still do not have any final answers yet.”
Once the USACE finishes cataloging this information, “we will move on to computer simulation modeling,” Gysan offered, “to study how these alternatives will perform, and this will help us to select a final plan of operation for Lake Okeechobee. This will be in conjunction with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as passed by the United States Congress to promote the enhancement of the environment. We expect to have the LOSOM draft by Spring 2022 and the final version by early Fall 2022. This entire four-year process will be open and transparent, with all the information and feedback online, as well as more public workshops and meetings, before we make our final recommendations.”
Pieces of the Puzzle
Marci Jackson, the USACE Lead Planner for the LOSOM effort, presented its Objections, Constraints and Considerations. “We need to be able to evaluate each of these scenarios, to see how they fit in as part of the LOSOM plan. Our Project Area is what we are actually doing in Lake Okeechobee itself; our Study area for LOSOM is much larger, as that includes any region affected by Lake Okeechobee, and that is a significant portion of Florida and a big majority of Southwest Florida.”
Jackson said that Objectives included finding a balance between issues such as flood control, recreational activities and industries like fishing; to improve the Lake’s ecology and natural resources while maintaining the structural and operational integrity of the project; minimize high regulatory water releases into the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to the extent practical; avoid risks to public health and safety as related to flood control, water supply, and Harmful Algae Blooms; improve water supply performance; and increase dry season flows to the Caloosahatchee estuary and the Everglades to enhance the environment and natural resources.
Under Constraints, Jackson listed the Herbert Hoover Dike Safety Risk; design & operational capacity of major outlets, downstream canals, and the Okeechobee Waterway; Seminole Tribe Water Rights Compact and the Endangered Species Act.
She explained that Considerations had several categories. Under “Water Supply,” Jackson listed agricultural needs, Everglades National Park, municipal and industrial needs, saltwater intrusion, stormwater treatment areas, and Tribal Water Rights, “with the intent to get water flowing to the right places at the right times when they need it.”
Ecosystem Considerations include Lake Okeechobee, the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay, Biscayne Bay, Lake Worth Lagoon, South Florida National Wildlife Refuges, the nearshore and offshore resources on Florida’s East and West Coasts, and the Loxahatchee River. Water Quality Considerations are inflows to Lake Okeechobee, water within Lake Okeechobee, Saint Lucie estuary, Caloosahatchee estuary, Everglades Protection Area, associated waterways affected by HABs, and all waterways that have an impact on or from Lake Okeechobee.
Other Considerations are impacts on natural resources, economic impact across the system, water storage capacity, downstream impacts to public and private property, and Climate Change within the study region. Jackson stated that Performance Evaluation Metrics will include economic impacts, endangered species, flood risk management, navigation, public health, recreation, saltwater intrusions, system-wide ecology, water supply, and water quality, “with the goal to provide these Performance Metrics by December 19 of this year.”
Gysan added “Overall, the current system does not have the water storage we need and one project alone will not fix that. Water historically flowed south, but not to the west and east, so in the 1950s, people implemented an infrastructure to prevent flooding and it worked really well, as to this day, we do not have flooding issues. What we need now, however, to reduce releases to the west and east is storage all around Lake Okeechobee, and until we have that, we don’t have the flexibility we need to properly manage the system. All these projects cost money and until the Federal and State governments appropriate that for all of them, we can only work with what we have. I understand your frustrations that everything is not moving faster, but all these efforts are tied to the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike by 2022.”
To learn more about LOSOM, visit bit.ly/LOSOMisp; to share your opinions with the USACE, email them to email@example.com.
By Gary Mooney