Please have mercy on the US Army Corps of Engineers. Assuming the role of a modern-day Solomon, the federal agency had to come up with new water use guidelines for Lake Okeechobee that would somehow satisfy several stakeholders with competing interests. What the Corps has come up with isn’t perfect, but it’s arguably the best option available.
Until work is finally completed on the Everglades restoration projects currently under construction, the Lake Okeechobee System Operations Manual (LOSOM) will just have to do the trick.
“If you get better somewhere, it will be at the expense of something else,” said Calvin Neidrauer, a hydrological modeler at Kimberly Miller of the Palm Beach Post.
Of course, not everyone will like the new management plan. The farming community got a good chunk of water from Florida’s largest freshwater lake, but they are clamoring for more. Environmentalists are grateful that more water from the lake is flowing south to the Everglades, but hoped for more. Communities along estuaries that are the relief valves of a swollen lake still have to worry about polluted runoff, a situation that prompted US Representative Brian Mast to use a layman’s description of “cow dung” to express his concerns. feelings about the outcome.
LOSOM is the acronym for how the Corps will manage the lake next year, once the work on the Herbert Hoover seawall is complete. A plan that recognizes the many demands on the lake is clearly needed, given that 9 million people in South Florida depend on the lake for drinking water, as do thriving boating and fishing industries. , sugarcane and vegetable growers, the Florida Everglades, and Florida. The Bay.
The new regime has advantages. It reduces the amount of polluted water in the Saint Lucia estuary by 76% and by 60% in the Caloosahatchee river. The amount of water flowing south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay will more than triple, and the obvious beneficiary in Palm Beach County is Lake Worth Lagoon, which will see a reduction of 83 % of discharges contaminated with algae and will be treated as an ecologically sensitive estuary.
But the plan can’t fix everything. Due to the improvements to the Herbert Hoover Embankment, the plan calls for an increase in lake levels, which will threaten the ecology of the lake and ultimately the fishery as submerged plants die from lack of sunlight.
The lake supplies nearly half of the water used by West Palm Beach, through the Grassy Waters Preserve, which also supplies the cities of Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. West Palm officials said the Corps had not adequately modeled key areas of the county, including the reserve, the city’s main water source, or considered how the city should provide water. to the Loxahatchee River during the dry season. These questions remain unanswered.
Although LOSOM places a higher priority on environmental concerns, it cannot completely eliminate the possibility of spills into lakes. The Corps is still responsible for managing lake levels, and if weather conditions or water requirements warrant, brackish discharge will end up in the estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucia rivers.
Improvements have been made as part of the Everglades Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CERP) which is getting closer to reality. As recently as last week, the C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area, a $ 339 million Everglades restoration project to purify runoff before it flows into the river. Saint Lucia and the Indian River Lagoon, began to operate. Work on a similar reservoir – the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir – near the Caloosahatchee River is progressing and is expected to be completed in 2022.
Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent pledge to seek $ 660 million in the next state budget for Everglades restoration, including CERP, the EAA Reservoir Project, and the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, marks Florida’s commitment to play its part in the ongoing federal-state engagement. to help restore the famous River of Grass.
More can be done. Building a reservoir south of the lake will ensure less discharge from the lake to the east and west and direct cleaner water to the Everglades. A new reservoir and treatment area north of the lake would reduce the influx of polluted water into the lake and help keep the lake level low enough to maintain fishing habitat. Unfortunately, these projects are years away and money is still a problem.
Last week’s plan offers a marked improvement in the way the Corps manages the lake. Until more Everglades restoration projects go live, it’s as good as it gets.