Water Woes: Corps, District Say State is Saturated

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In last week’s story about the water woes we are facing this season, we told our readers how rising levels in Lake Okeechobee have caused the Army Corps of Engineers to literally open the floodgates at Moore Haven Lock (S-77), sending billions of gallons of nutrient pollution laden water down the Caloosahatchee River to our fragile ecosystem. Late last week, the Corps held a teleconference with press from south Florida where they told us that, unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse.

Public Affairs Specialist John Campbell opened the conference by explaining that – with lake levels at 16.22 feet and rising, the situation has now become one of safety and that the biggest concern is for the people living along the southern rim of the lake – protected only by an aging dike.

“Since November, we have been 500% above average with rainfall,” Campbell said. “And the predictions for the coming months, which is normally our dry season, are for even more record breaking rainfall.”

Campbell was joined by the Operations Division Chief for the Corps’ Jacksonville District Jim Jeffords, who said that the lake has risen ½ foot in the last 30 days, something that caused them to move to the maximum allowable releases (9,300 cfs, or cubic feet per second, an amount equal to 70,000 gallons per second) permitted by the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS).

“This is shaping up to be the most severe El Nino since 1998, and we are rapidly moving into a High Lake Management Band,” Jeffords said. “We are on a steep incline – the water is coming into the lake three times faster than we can get rid of it. The last time the lake was this high was in 2005.”

Jim said that the record high level for Lake O is 18.77 feet, a number he expects to see surpassed this season.

“We are now on a daily inspection plan when it comes to the Herbert Hoover Dike, and our main concern is public safety,” he said. “We are but one small rain event from breaking the record high level. We realize the damage this is doing to the estuaries downstream, and we are making every effort to put the excess water onto public and private lands, but it rains across the entire basin – everything is saturated.”

Campbell said the flows – while massive – have yet to reach 2013 levels.

“Since November 1st, we’ve released 250,000 acre feet of water, in 2013 we released 1.5 million,” he said. “And just because we’ve hit the High Lake Management Band we’re actually releasing 9,300 cfs – those flows are limited by constraints of structures and the potential for flooding private property downstream.”

A slide shown by the Corps depicted where that 250,000 acre feet have gone: 138,000 at the Moore Haven lock (S-77); 449,000 at Franklin lock (S-79) – those are in the Caloosahatchee River; 96,200 acre feet south and a total of 92,500 towards the east coast.

Campbell and Jeffords then opened up the conference to questions. We wanted to know how dike rehabilitation projects are coming along and when they might be to the point where the LORS water release schedule could be revisited.

“We’ve had a series of public meetings, and we do have a rehabilitation plan but there are a number of variables for that – including funding,” Campbell replied. “Right now, we’re probably looking at 2018 before the projects have gotten to the point where we can revisit LORS.”

We also asked Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resources Policy Director’s Rae Ann Wessel’s question as to why the Corps didn’t begin smaller, limited releases back in October when the El Nino predictions first came in and the estuary was starving for fresh water as salinity levels were off the charts.

“We have to follow LORS the way it was developed – to make extra releases when lake levels are low requires us to get approval from our superiors,” John said. “It’s a long and tedious process to do that.”

Most of the other press representatives – including those from the middle of the state – wanted to know why backpumping was being allowed.

“This is allowed only for flood control,” Jeffords said. “Not just for agriculture, but also for the communities south of the lake. The water conservation areas are at a record height – it’s hard to for us to move any of this water south.”

Jeffords stopped short of blaming backpumping on the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), though they do make the decision whether or not to open two of the pumps.

“Everything is based on LORS, which was developed by the Corps,” he said. “It’s based upon the water level in the canals south of the lake, and right now they are nearly full. What is back pumped is a very small amount when compared to the amount of water coming into the lake.”

A reporter from Miami wanted to know at what level would the Corps consider the dike to be at risk of breaching, and Campbell replied that’s hard to define but ‘somewhere in the 17-18 foot range’.

“A normal level is between 12.5 to 15.5 feet, and we like to have the lake at the lowest part of that before hurricane season starts,” he said.

Finally, we asked Jeffords and Campbell if any negotiations had ever been made with the sugar growers south of the lake to consider allowing part of their fields to be flooded rather than send all of the water east and west.

“The SFWMD has entered into a number of those agreements – you’d have to ask them,” Campbell replied.

We asked that question to Mitch Hutchfield, Southwest Florida’s representative on the District’s governing board, and he told us that agriculture has been ‘doing it’s part’ by adhering to Best Management Practices (BMP’s) such as rotating crops and keeping more water in their canals.

“One of those crops is rice, which requires a lot of water and allows them to put more water into their fields, plus it absorbs excess phosphorous,” he said.

Randy Smith, Media Representative for the South Florida Water Management District, told us that the District is always looking for options to store water.

“As a water management agency, when we saw the predictions for El Nino, we moved as much water out of the lake as possible in anticipation – several hundred thousand acre feet, or 1/3 of a foot. The problem is, it (El Nino) came in from the south and filled up all of our water escape routes fast – Miami/Dade got flooded and many crops got ruined down there. Once it moved up the state, it filled everything up and didn’t go away.”

Smith said that the back pumping stopped after four days, and was quite vehement that it was done to save families, not fields.

“The populated area in the southeast part of the lake – Glades County – got hit with 6-8” in 24 hours – that’s something that usually only happens during hurricane season after a named storm,” he said. “The water levels rose so high in the canals that there was a risk it would overtop the banks and flood those communities. Back in the 1950’s, 2 pumps were installed that we could use – as a last recourse only – to pull the water down. In four days, we put ¾ of an inch back into the lake. I don’t think it did much for the sugar cane fields because that’s not why we did it.”

Some say that’s because the sugar cane farmers created the excess water themselves. Marty Baum, Indian Riverkeeper, claims that sugar cane growers pump excess water from their fields and that water is what’s filling up the canals – requiring back pumping protocol to take place to keep communities from flooding. On January 29, 2016, Baum, accompanied by Indian Riverkeeper board members Kenny Hinkle Jr. and Marjorie Shropshire traveled to the bottom of the lake to view and document back pumping at S-2 (one of the pumps operated by the District).

“As they (cane farmers) are de-watering fields in the Everglades Agricultural Areas (EAA), they are flooding the canals and systems where people live. The sugar companies tell you that back pumping is a safety issue, but it is an issue they create that then holds the safety of local citizens hostage,” he reported on the Indian Riverkeeper’s website on February 5. “After leaving S-2 and traveling east, we observed that fields along State Road 76 were not all flooded. We stopped at a canal intersecting the road and documented water flowing from a canal structure through a gate, under SR76, and directly into the Okeechobee Waterway. The water was nasty, and foam was flying in the air adjacent to the structure.”

The bottom line, according to Smith, is that the only thing that will fix the problem is to find more areas to store water and finish projects in CEPP.

“We really need to get these projects funded,” he said. “Amendment One funds might have been used for this, but what happens to that money is up to the Florida Legislature, not the SFWMD.”

As of press time, the water level in Lake O was 16.40 feet, up 2/10 of a foot from last week.

Keri Hendry Weeg