The U.S Army Corps of Engineers shares the concerns of local, state and federal health experts concerning the toxicity of the harmful fresh water algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee and in Florida’s waterways. Water quality is one of the critical considerations we integrate into our decision making as we work to balance the multiple and varied interests surrounding Lake Okeechobee water management.
As USACE gets closer to selecting the preferred alternative in the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual study, we understand it is important for stakeholders to advocate for their interests. Our role is to gather and listen to the input from all stakeholders and develop a balanced plan that meets all of the objectives of the study.
We appreciate and encourage the discussion about this project and continue to receive amazing public participation from stakeholders across the state.
We remain committed to sending every drop of water south that the state of Florida will allow. USACE does not control the Stormwater Treatment Areas that water must travel through in order to meet court ordered standards required of water entering Everglades National Park. USACE cannot unilaterally send water south to the Water Conservation Areas without it first going through the STAs controlled and operated by the state of Florida.
The state has done a phenomenal job of finding ways to move more water south, and we have been honored to partner with them in significantly increasing the water flowing into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. However, the ability to send water south is limited, and until more projects are built to convey, store, and clean water, regular releases to the northern estuaries will continue to be necessary.
By using operational flexibility, we lowered the lake to 10.79 feet by the start of the dry season in June 2019. This was done to improve lake ecology after several years of high water levels. A relatively dry wet season allowed the lake to reach a low of 11 feet in May 2020 before the start of the rainy season. The difference in the lowest dry season lake level between the two years was 0.21 feet – just over 2.5 inches. The 2020 rainy season rainfalls of 174% of normal in October and 319% of normal in November are why we have a high lake stage this year, not a USACE choice to avoid dry season releases in Spring 2020.
The current dry season started out anything but dry. October saw 174% of normal rainfall. November saw 319% of normal rainfall. December ended the year at 113% of normal rainfall. As the rains began increasing, USACE began long-duration, high-volume releases from October through December, despite urging from many stakeholders to avoid releases completely to the estuaries due to Red Tide and salinity concerns.
In January of 2021, with the lake still high, USACE paused releases at the request of stakeholders to provide the estuary with an opportunity to recover from low salinity levels. We began releases again under the approved Harmful Algal Bloom Deviation, allowing us to remove more than 93,000 acre feet of water from the lake that would otherwise still be threatening the estuaries with extended, high volume releases this summer. The reality is, USACE maximized its authorities to remove water this dry season to lower the lake before rainy season begins.
USACE agrees that harmful algal blooms, and the microcystin toxins that can occur from some algal blooms, can be dangerous to humans and animals, and the economic impact like those experienced during the summers of 2016 and 2018 is significant. We strive to avoid releases when the risk of toxins on the lake or in the estuaries is high, and the harmful algal bloom deviation provides us with yet another tool to help avoid those releases.
However, nature always gets the final vote on when we absolutely must release water. If necessary, during hurricane season, we will release water to the estuaries.
While USACE has no authority to manage water quality in Florida, we work closely with and support the efforts of state agencies that do have responsibility over water quality issues. The State of Florida is the lead on the much-needed restoration of the water quality in Lake Okeechobee, and we are enthusiastically coordinating with them to support their efforts in that area.
First, there are no final plans. There are five concepts of balanced plans that we presented May 7 to the public that include different frameworks that will be modified during modeling to produce the final balanced plans. Second, though all five of the frameworks began as different plans during the conceptual plan and iteration 1 phases, they were all modified and combined with other plans that scored well during the initial modeling, so none are authored by any one group.
USACE has tested tens of thousands of plans, and during the first phase of testing the single performance measure plans, none of the plans that eliminated all releases to the St. Lucie estuary were able to do so without harming performance in another area.
We began the public participation process of LOSOM with scoping meetings that were announced in January 2019, more than two years ago. We started holding regular PDT meetings in August of that same year, and despite having to change our processes for COVID-19, we have succeeded in keeping this study on schedule.
We have geared our process to elevate everyone’s understanding of how the system works and reacts, to understand the performance outcomes desired by the various parts of the system, and to understand the key performance metrics that should be used to evaluate performance. The interactions and feedback during the process to this point have been invaluable in the development process.
We are using the same language for LOSOM that we use for all of our studies and projects, following the same process we have used for years successfully in multiple projects benefiting South Florida, and have been diligent in responding to questions and concerns from Project Delivery Team members and members of the public throughout this process.
Our task now is to have a system operating manual ready to implement when the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation is complete in 2022, and we are confident that we will be able to meet that timeline.
We will continue to seek public participation and feedback to our operations and our future plans, and we will continue to do our best to balance the project purposes of Lake Okeechobee as well as the objectives of the LOSOM study.
We strive to avoid high-volume releases to the estuaries whenever possible, provide water to the Caloosahatchee when needed in the dry season, and maximize releases south when it is beneficial to the Everglades and is practical and advantageous to meeting the Lake Okeechobee water management project purposes.
That is our mission, and we will continue to execute it.
Colonel Jason E. Kelly, PMP
Commander, South Atlantic Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers