U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visits refuge
In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule or LORS, which sets guidelines for water releases out of the lake. Because LORS is currently under review, the recent meeting we had with the Army Corps was a timely opportunity for us to make the Corps aware of how LORS impacts the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the changes we would like to see.
On Aug. 20, the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society hosted a luncheon as part of the Corps’ daylong fact-finding trip to the area, orchestrated by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. In addition to members of the DDWS, the luncheon guests included members of the refuge’s staff, ranking members of the Corps’ Jacksonville District, several representatives of the city of Sanibel, and the leadership of the SCCF.
The schedule of water releases out of Lake Okeechobee is a hot topic for several reasons. As explained in a previous guest commentary published in the March 27, 2019, edition of the Islander Reporter, a few months ago the Army Corps began a multi-year study that will result in new long-term guidelines for the operation of the lake. The new guidelines are being referred to as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual or LOSOM (www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOSOM).
This year, as we approached the rainy season, the Army Corps kept the water level in Lake Okeechobee at relatively low levels. Their primary motivation was that over the last few years, tens of thousands of acres of plants in the lake have died, in part due to high water levels. The plants, which help to clean the water in the lake, need shallow water to germinate and grow. Keeping the lake low as we approach rainy season was good for the refuge, because it reduced the likelihood that the Army Corps will have to make massive releases of nutrient rich water from the lake during the summer and early fall.
In July, the Army Corps acknowledged that it had released water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers that contained toxic cyanobacteria. In an August press release, the Corps stated that to address harmful algae blooms or HABs, it is thinking about making changes to the current release schedule prior to completing LOSOM.
“The proposed deviation would allow the Corps more flexibility during periods when harmful algae blooms (HABs) are present,” the release stated. “The Corps could release less than LORS guidance when blooms are present, in exchange for releasing more than LORS guidance during times when blooms aren’t present. The goal is to release the same net amount of water as would have been released following LORS guidance, but to attempt to minimize risks posed when algal blooms are present.”
However, several groups are opposed to what the Corps has been doing and what the Corps intends to do. For example, earlier this year multiple groups complained to the Corps that the water level in Lake Okeechobee was being kept at too low a level. This includes people, such as fishermen, who make their living in the lake area as well as those communities that rely on Lake Okeechobee for their primary or secondary source of drinking water.
They are not the only ones unhappy with the Corps. In June, the Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit against a number of government agencies, including the Army Corps. Their suit claims that the Army Corps has failed to address human and wildlife concerns when releasing water out of Lake Okeechobee. On Aug. 1, the United States Sugar Corporation filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to reduce the flexibility that the Corps has relative to water releases out of the lake (www.ussugar.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/2019-08-01-Complaint.pdf).
Given the diverse set of organizations that are attempting to influence them, it is imperative that we continually communicate with the Corps. With that in mind, over the last several months the DDWS has provided input to the Army Corps, both in writing and at meetings hosted by the Corps, about how the release of nutrient rich water out of Lake Okeechobee has impacts to the refuge. The luncheon was a chance for us to deliver that message face-to-face.
Sarah Ashton and Jim Metzler are the co-chairs for the Advocacy Committee for the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge. For more information, visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org.