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Your voice is needed to reduce future Lake Okeechobee discharges

By Staff | Apr 2, 2019

PHOTO PROVIDED Freshwater plume on June 3 at the Lighthouse Beach Park on Sanibel following Lake Okeechobee discharges.

We have an opportunity to reduce future harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries. Your comments are needed by April 22 to improve how the lake is managed. To send a letter to the U.E. Army Corps of Engineers, visit https://p2a.co/1SSv0Lf.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is soliciting public input on the development of a new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule. The new schedule will be 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 protection of the lake’s ecology, water supply for agricultural, urban and environmental uses, and discharges to the estuaries.

A series of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public scoping meetings were held throughout South Florida through March 20 and public scoping comments will be accepted until April 22. For more information on the public scoping process, visit “http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOSOM”>www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOSOM.

Lake Okeechobee discharges have the single greatest impact on water quality in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie 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 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan project schedule, there is no single 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 during the dry season would reduce the volume of water that must be discharged in the wet season.

There are several aspects of the existing 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) that must be addressed in the LOSOM to make it more equitable for all affected stakeholders while protecting the coastal estuaries. Below is a summary of key items that we would like to see the Army Corps address:

Mayor Kevin Ruane

– The proposed timeline for the LOSOM process has completion in 2022, concurrent with rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike. The health of our coastal communities affected by Lake Okeechobee discharges cannot wait until 2022. The LOSOM process must be accelerated with a completion target of 18 months.

– All of the lake management bands of the lake regulation schedule must be modeled and included in the new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), including the Beneficial Use and Water Shortage Management Bands. The new schedule must “share adversity” equitably and ration all water users during dry periods.

– Ecological targets for the Caloosahatchee must be based on measured flow data and salinity responses. Flow targets should be based on the best available measured data to determine the relationships between flow and salinity.

– The operational management bands of LORS should be adjusted as necessary to avoid the practice of holding water levels artificially high up until the rainy season then discharging it to the estuaries.

– Under the current LORS, flows to the Caloosahatchee are measured at different water control structures along the river depending on meteorological conditions and lake levels. Under LOSOM the flows to the Caloosahatchee should always be measured at the Franklin Lock (S-79) structure located at the estuary.

– Water quality and the presence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee should be considered when making regulatory discharges to the coastal estuaries. Nutrient loading (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus) from the lake to the estuaries should also be taken into consideration when harmful algal blooms are present within the estuaries (e.g., cyanobacteria, red tide or nuisance drift algae).

– A rigorous evaluation of the impacts of sea level rise on lake operations should be incorporated into the LOSOM.

– Optimal water levels in the lake (currently 12.5 to 15.5 feet) should be re-evaluated to determine if there are opportunities for improvements.

– The Corps should explore additional opportunities to hold canal levels south of Lake Okeechobee higher without adversely impacting existing communities or adjacent land owners.

– The impact of land subsidence within the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and how it affects present and future Lake Okeechobee operations should be fully evaluated.

– The use of forward pumps for water supply should be reassessed to fully account for ecological impacts to the Lake and other natural systems.

The relationship between water quality and Florida’s economy has never been more apparent than it is today. The impacts to our communities cannot continue.

Please make your voice heard and submit a comment letter to the Army Corps today by visiting https://p2a.co/1SSv0Lf. You can also take action to stop future Lake Okeechobee discharges by texting “MYSANIBEL” to 52886.

Kevin Ruane is the mayor of the city of Sanibel.