For many residents of Florida, the local news over the past weeks focused on images of large scale fish die-offs and dark polluted water in the Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg areas. For those here in Southwest Florida, these images coming out of central Florida serve as a reminder of the summer of 2018, when toxic blue-green algae spilled out of Lake Okeechobee, down the Caloosahatchee, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico causing similar fish-die offs and red tide events.
Coincidentally, at the same time the events in Tampa were making national news, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a public meeting which resulted in the adoption of a revised Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or “LOSOM” for short. The plan was last revised over a decade ago and governs the Army Corps’ management of the water levels in Lake Okeechobee.
The most important aspect of this management plan is the freshwater releases down the St. Lucie River, Caloosahatchee River and through the Everglades into Florida Bay. The Army Corps, as the executive arm in charge of these releases, drain and store water to assist with flood control, system ecology, and agricultural irrigation around the Lake. The adoption and modification of the LOSOM plan are governed by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, codified as section 601 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000.
Considering the Congressional mandate of the Everglades Restoration Plan, along with public input from numerous stakeholders across South Florida, the Army Corps at a July 15th meeting considered a number of revised management plans. The Army Corps ultimately decided on the plan known as Alternative CC, which was largely supported by conservation groups who viewed the plan as a more balanced approach to solving the water quality issues across South Florida.
How does this new plan impact Southwest Florida?
The proposed LOSOM revision significantly reduces water releases down the St. Lucie River, and increases freshwater releases to the south through the Everglades, and even lowers the allowable flow levels into the Caloosahatchee during the dry season. Alternative CC outperformed the other models across the board during simulated testing, meaning the plan does begin to address the water quality issues stemming from the Lake.
The downside to the plan, is that Alternative CC in its proposed form requires that the Caloosahatchee bear the brunt of the discharges during the rainier summer months. During the rainy season, the levels of phosphate and nitrogen are especially high in the Lake, which can cause algae blooms that exacerbate the effects of naturally occurring red tide.
In the plan’s current form, Alternative CC does not necessarily provide a solution to the potential algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee. However, the Army Corps now enters what is called the optimization stage of the implementation process. The Army Corps will continue to receive public comment over the next several weeks, making stops across South Florida to address and consider additional stakeholder input before finalizing the plan in September.
Based on those comments and continued evaluation of management models of the Lake, the plan may be modified further to provide for an even more balanced approach, which spreads the releases more evenly amongst the St. Lucie and Everglades.
For residents of Southwest Florida interested in submitting public comment you may do so by sending an email to LakeOComments@usace.army.mil.