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Write the SFWMD on Adaptive Protocols for Lake O

By Staff | Sep 2, 2010

The Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee Operations (AP) provide guidance to Lake Okeechobee water managers when deciding if, when and where to release water from the lake. The AP document is currently being updated because of the 2008 change to the lake regulation schedule, and it is anticipated that the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board will vote on the revised Adaptive Protocols at their meeting in West Palm Beach next week.

Over the past year, SCCF policy staff has been part of a process involving the SFWMD, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, agricultural and natural system stakeholders including west coast partners from the City of Sanibel, Lee County and the Southwest Florida Watershed Council on updating protocols for Lake Okeechobee releases. 

Goal of the Adaptive Protocol Process    

The goal of the Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee Operations (AP) is to manage the volume, timing and delivery of water out of Lake Okeechobee to more equitably balance water deliveries between permitted users (agriculture and municipal water supply) and natural systems for the benefit of wildlife and habitat protection and saltwater management. It is critical that the AP document be updated in order to change strict guidelines that have resulted in harmful water delivery decisions for the Caloosahatchee and other natural systems. 

Defining the problem    

In the Caloosahatchee, problems for the natural system exist both when water levels in the lake are low as well as high.  When water levels are low, the SFWMD has repeatedly recommended unilaterally cutting off flow to the Caloosahatchee, without requiring conservation or cutting back water supply to other users.  Compounding the injury, Caloosahatchee water is often redirected to the lake for the benefit of permitted water users at the expense of the estuary. In other words, when water is scarce, permitted water users get all they want, while the natural system gets cut off. Water that should be directed to the natural system is instead redirected to benefit permitted water users, resulting in harm to the natural system from high salinities caused by too little freshwater. 

In high water conditions, unwanted, excess water is pumped off lands throughout the system and dumped down the river, damaging seagrass and oyster habitat.  This provides flood control to permitted users at the expense of the natural system.

In order to improve ecosystem benefits, this current operational inequity that unilaterally cuts off water entirely or dumps unwanted flood waters harming the function of natural systems, must be changed. 

Seminal Policy Issue   

The process of addressing the damage to natural systems has revealed a seminal policy issue: the fundamental fairness of cutting off natural systems from public water while private, permitted users receive 100 percent of their demand, even when that inequity results in actual harm to the natural system. 

Staff AP recommendation    

A number of alternatives were modeled in the evaluation phase of this process, resulting in a broad range of outcomes. Unfortunately, the Governing Board was not presented a side-by-side comparison of the effects of these alternatives. The staff-selected recommendation will continue to unilaterally cut off natural systems without restricting other users. 

Additional issues    

For the Caloosahatchee, high flows are a critical issue as we receive the majority of damaging flows during periods of excess water. The current document does not include any guidance for assessing ecological conditions in the estuaries during periods of high flow. There need to be operational alternatives to contract and implement emergency storage options throughout the watersheds north, west, east and south of the lake. Without additional storage, the Caloosahatchee will continue to be the dumping ground for the system.

Back flowing or redirecting Caloosahatchee water back into Lake Okeechobee — a common practice in the extreme dry seasons and drought years — was modeled during the evaluation of alternatives. Backflowing was shown to harm the Caloosahatchee estuary while benefiting permitted water users. Conversely, modeling showed that if that river water was allowed to flow to the estuary during those periods, the Caloosahatchee estuary conditions would improve without impacting permitted water users.

We have requested that the adaptive protocol first assess estuary conditions before redirecting any Caloosahatchee water into Lake Okeechobee. If the estuary needs the flow, the water would continue to flow to the estuary. Only if the estuary does not need the flow, could water be redirected to the lake.

Speak out    

The SFWMD Governing Board is scheduled to discuss and vote on the AP at its meeting in West Palm Beach next week. The natural systems of the west coast have been seriously impacted by lake release decisions, and the currently proposed recommendation is unacceptable. 

The Governing Board needs our input. Ask them to stop sacrificing the natural system for the benefit of other water users. Ask them to adopt a policy that only cuts back water to natural systems when all users share in cutbacks. Ask them to implement emergency storage options to reduce damaging lake releases. It’s time the west coast gets equal treatment.  

You’ll find Governing Board e-mails on our website, where you can also review our letters to staff and the GB: www.sccf.org.