It’s too early to tell, but a push to lower Lake O has great potential.

Maintaining a lower level will allow the gates to stay closed longer, hopefully stopping toxic discharges.

Ten and a half feet. That’s the magic number. In the wake of massive freshwater Lake Okeechobee discharges and the horrific toxic algal blooms that gripped the big lake and its artificially connected Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River estuaries in 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) has gone back to the drawing board.

Destruction to marine life and habitat has shed a bright light on the ineffectiveness, and inequity, of the Corps’ current LORS (Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule) guidelines for managing the water level of Lake Okeechobee.

THE SHORTCOMINGS

LORS was adopted by the ACOE in 2008 and has since been the water control plan for Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of the lake. Under LORS, the criteria and priorities for controlling the elevation (depth) of the lake are as follows, as listed by the ACOE: Flood control, navigation, agricultural irrigation water supply, municipalities and industry, Everglades National Park, regional groundwater supply, salinity control, fish and wildlife enhancement, and recreation.

Contaminated water being discharged from Lake Okeechobee.

Whatever the priority pecking order, it has been an operational failure. Under LORS, the coastal fisheries have suffered numerous, massive Lake Okeechobee discharge events. Critics of LORS point out two shortcomings: One, the guidelines result in too high a lake level year-round, which necessitates more frequent toxic discharges to the coasts. And two, the glaring lack of consideration of adverse health impacts to “downstream” human populations on the coasts, caused by toxic microcystin that is released by cyanobacteria (so-called blue-green algae) blooms once they hit the salty public waterways. Under LORS the Corps tries to keep the lake level in the 12.5 to 15.5 range. When the cyanobacteria blooms and sediment-laden fresh water is sent from the lake it blankets the St. Lucie/lower Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Seagrasses and oysters die in the suddenly freshwater environs. Fishing suffers. And once “no human contact” warning signage is posted at public access points on the water, and the bad news hits the news cycle, both resident and visiting anglers quit fishing, and fishing-related and water-based businesses suffer substantial losses.

PUT PUBLIC HEALTH FIRST!

At recent LOSOM public scoping meetings held throughout South Florida, citizens turned out in droves and many called upon the ACOE to make human health impacts to coastal residents a priority and first consideration in their deciding to send Lake Okeechobee water to coastal communities in Lee and Martin counties, via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Others cited economic loss in their businesses, whether directly or indirectly dependent on fishing and boating. Real estate interests were especially vocal, after years of being relatively quiet on the matter. The testimonies made clear that Lake Okeechobee discharges have cascading effects on both the state’s $8 billion recreational fishing industry and tourism, the backbone of Florida’s economy.

OPERATIONAL CHANGE

LOSOM (Lake Okeechobee System Operational Manual) is essentially the ACOE’s Plan B, and will reevaluate and redefine operations for the Lake O regulation schedule that takes into account additional water project infrastructure that will eventually become operational, such as a completed dike rehab, Kissimmee River restoration project, C-43 (Lee County) and C-44 (Martin County) reservoirs.

Any new guidelines will take into consideration how these water projects currently under construction could increase the amount of water that can be held in the lake and theoretically improve the Corps’ ability to move and store water elsewhere. The Corps will not say how much additional water can be held in the lake once Herbert Hoover dike repairs are completed, sometime in 2022.

On shore of St. Lucie River, from left, Mike Conner interviews watershed advocate Alex Gillen, of Bullsugar, and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (FL 18th District).

RELIEF NOW

Enter Congressman Brian Mast (District 18) who has lobbied aggressively for a lower lake level at the start of wet season. Not waiting three years to see what LOSOM brings, Mast publicly called for a lake level of 10.5 by June 1 annually, which has been called radical by both agricultural and even bass fishing interests around the lake, but is actually the lower end of the “operational” dry season regulation schedule lake level under LORS. Under 10.5, which the Corps calls the water shortage management band, the agency defers all decisions of water releases to the South Florida Water Management District.

“This is not some arbitrary number I pulled from a hat,” said Mast. “The 10.5-foot level is written into the Corps’ own LORS schedule as the lower end of the lake operational band.”

Mast was told by the Corps during public meetings that all entities and stakeholders dependent on Lake O water could get their water needs met at 10.5. And a 10.5 level will provide more capacity in the lake for rainfall that normally starts in early June, thus decreasing the likelihood that the Corps would have to discharge the lake to the coasts later in summer and fall. At this juncture, it is the kind of change in operational procedure that can be implemented right now to spare the estuaries and fisheries and give them a chance to recover.

“If last year’s lake level was at today’s level, 11.23, we would NOT have had any discharges.” Zero discharges.

“Lowering the lake is key and brings immediate potential relief, but we need congressional law to give this alteration of the schedule teeth and permanancy,” commented Blair Wickstrom, Florida Sportsman Publisher. “We need Congressman Mast to re-introduce the Stop Harmful Discharge Act, putting human health of people of the estuaries a priority into law.”

Mark Perry, Executive Director of the Florida Oceangraphic Society, applauds the efforts to lower Lake O. “Today, May 15, 2019 the lake is at 11.23 feet. Same day in 2018 the lake was nearly two feet higher, at 13.04 feet. Last year we got catastrophic toxic discharges to the St. Lucie. If last year’s lake level was at today’s level, 11.23, we would NOT have had any discharges.” Zero discharges.

STAY ENGAGED

The LOSOM evaluation process will take until September 2022, and there will be more public comment periods and workshops on both the ACOE’s draft reports and final reports, when they are released. A signed record of decision is expected in December, 2022. Anglers can receive updates on this process by emailing a request and contact email to: Erica.A.Skolte@usace.army.mil.

Maintaining a lower level, like in this photo from May 4, 2019, will allow the gates to stay closed longer, hopefully stopping toxic discharges.

Key Points for Operational Change and Immediate Relief:

  1. Lower Lake O in the dry season by sending treated water south, where it is desperately needed. 10.5 feet is a good goal.
  2. Keeping Lake O high increases risk of toxic algae blooms, increases risk of poisoning population centers in the wet season.
  3. Everglades National Park (ENP) is starved for water — receives 20X less water than historically in the dry season.
  4. Virtually all that stockpiled water in Lake O goes to feed thirsty sugarcane, meaning growers never worry about drought. The proof is in the numbers: USDA stats show 40 years of increasing crop and yields. How many times have the estuaries and ENP been devastated in those 40 years?
  5. We need more storage and treatment so no one gets hurt—but Florida Crystals and US Sugar have lobbied AGAINST it. Why? They always get the water they want.
  6. Lower Lake O in the dry season until the estuaries and ENP fully recover. Big Sugar will still make money, although they will have to be a little more aware of droughts. Maybe they’ll get on board the train of more storage and treatment. FS

EXCLUSIVE ONLINE DOCUMENTARIES

The Florida Sportsman Watermen (FSW) documentaries are produced with the help of FSW Advisory Panel member organizations in connection with the Florida Sportsman Watermen television show.

A Positive Impact

Mike Conner meets with Preston Robertson, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation, to discuss the Crystal River ecosystem and the positive impacts of protecting it.


Everglades Hydrology

Mike Conner up with President of the Friends of the Everglades, Philip Kushlan, to discuss the hydrology of the Everglades and how vital it is to this ecosystem.


Bogus Biosolids

Mike Conner meets with St. John’s Riverkeeper, Lisa Rinaman to discuss the biosolids entering the St. John’s and how they are contributing to the increased phosphorus levels and toxic algal blooms.


Downfalls of Dredging

Mike Conner meets with Miami Waterkeeper, Rachel Silverstein, to discuss the dredging of the Port of Miami and how this has affected the local ecosystem, harming endangered species such as staghorn coral and much more.


Water Wars

Mike Conner sits down with Apalachicola River Keeper, Georgia Ackerman, to discuss decreased freshwater flow and it’s effects on the Apalachicola Bay.


Plastic Sea

Florida’s Alex Schulze, cofounder of 4Ocean, presents solutions to a problem of global significance. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Key West Flats with Brandon Cyr and Bear Holeman.


Deadly Blooms

Aaron Adams of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and other leading scientists discuss effects of red tide and how human activities may be worsening the blooms. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Tampa Bay Trout with C.A. Richardson.


Toxic Threat

Lake discharges present major health risks to those exposed to blue-green algae. Join Zack Jud, Florida Oceanographic Society, and Daniel Andrews, Captains for Clean Water, to learn about the issues. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Charlotte Harbor Slam with Chris Wittman.


Low-down on Lake Okeechobee

Mike Conner meets with Alex Gillen of Bullsugar.org and Congressman Brian Mast to discuss lake discharges and an operational change that could stop them. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Stuart Crossroads Pompano with Ed Zyak.


Florida Bay, Pass the Salt

Jennifer Rehage, Associate Professor at Florida International University, explains sources, and consequences, of hypersalinity. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Florida Bay Snook with Rob Fordyce.


Restore Coastal Fish Habitat

Explore a unique project with Aaron Adams of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. Filmed in connection with FSW episode Mosquito Lagoon Reds with Flip Pallot.

Florida Sportsman Magazine July 2019

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