Lake O

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Lake Okeechobee when levels are considered too high for the Herbert Hoover Dike to provide sufficient protection against a breach.

Out of more than 240,000 model runs of discharging water from Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chose “Model 260467” as the framework on which the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, the playbook that will guide water releases for the next decade, will be based.

While not every stakeholder is happy, conservationists applaud LOSOM as an improvement over LORS 08, the current lake schedule that has been, in part, guided by the lake’s ailing Herbert Hoover Dike and responsible for sending toxic blue-green algae west to the Caloosahatchee estuary and east to the St. Lucie estuary.

Since 2001, the 143-mile dike structure surrounding Lake Okeechobee has been undergoing rehabilitation at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. The work is expected to be complete near the end of 2022, at which time, LOSOM is expected to be implemented.

According to Col. James Booth, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District commander, Model 260467 was chosen since it eliminates lake releases to the St. Lucie under normal conditions 95% of the time while flows to the west will be below 2,000 cubic feet per second, which the Corps says will minimize algae blooms.

The Corps manages lake levels to ensure the safety of the 9.3 million people of South Florida who rely on the Herbert Hoover Dike for flood protection.

However, large releases of fresh water from the lake into the estuaries can fuel massive algae blooms that are harmful to the ecosystem. Everglades advocates have called for that water to be released south where a huge reservoir and filtration marshes are being built to store and clean the water before it moves into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, where it is needed.

The new plan will increase water flows south to the Everglades to an annual average of 203,000 acre-feet per year, “which is a massive annual increase,” according to Booth.

The Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg praised the Corps’ new plan.

“This is the first time since 2008 that water managers are changing their approach in managing Lake Okeechobee’s water, and it is a major improvement from the status quo for the overwhelming majority of Floridians,” Eikenberg said in an issued statement. “This plan will significantly reduce harmful discharges to our east and west coasts and increase water flow south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, particularly in the dry season. ...

“While the long-term solution to South Florida’s complex water problems and the full elimination of discharges from the lake will only happen with new water infrastructure like the Everglades reservoir, this is a significant step toward a more balanced approach to managing the lake water that Floridians and our state rely on.”

Under LOSOM, the lake will spend less time below 12.56 feet than under LORS. LOSOM will keep the lake on average .6 inches higher than LORS, at 14 feet and runs from 14 feet to 15.5 feet in January and at about 13 feet in June. Ultimately, lake levels above 17 feet were not retained in the Corps’ plan.

Florida Bay advocates say the plan will benefit local waters.

“We are pleased with the outcome of the LOSOM process and the Corps’ selected plan. The modeling shows that flows south to the Everglades will increase threefold, which is sure to yield hydration and great benefit to Florida Bay as we await southern storage,” said Emma Haydocy, the Florida Bay Forever executive director.

Still, some remain skeptical of LOSOM.

“It’s not all we hoped for, but ultimately, it’s better than what we have now,” the Friends of the Everglades said in an issued statement.

“Model 260467 would discharge an average of 117,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie estuary every year. The good news is that’s 37% less than what might have been discharged had the Corps taken no action and continued to utilize the existing lake schedule. The bad news? It’s a 63% increase over the 72,000 acre-feet per year originally proposed in the Corps’ ‘preferred alternative,’ Plan CC.

“To be sure, there are other benefits. The amount of water sent south to the Everglades will triple under LOSOM. The Caloosahatchee estuary will see an increase in optimal flows and a decrease in damaging discharges from the lake. We applaud these changes, having advocated the Corps improve outcomes for the Caloosahatchee via the optimization process.”

The group, however, was critical of LOSOM’s “conservation mode,” which it says would “cut off helpful flows to the Everglades and Caloosahatchee during dry periods in order to stockpile water for sugarcane corporations south of the lake — resulting in more damaging discharges east and west during the wet season.”

According to Tim Gysan, LOSOM project director, the Corps next intends to issue a full-sweep model mid-December and begin drafting the Environmental Impact Statement as required.