On Tuesday Nov. 16, the U.S. Army Corps announced the final plan that will guide the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). LOSOM will replace the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS08) and guide how the lake is managed for the next decade. The plan also determines the volume and timing of water releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries and Everglades.
Throughout the LOSOM process, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Conservancy of Southwest Florida have been deeply engaged in evaluating modeling data, working with local stakeholders, and providing recommendations to the Corps to ensure the needs of the Caloosahatchee and coastal communities of Southwest Florida were met. Through the hard work and dedication of all the west coast stakeholders, including our elected leaders, residents, businesses, scientists, and environmental advocates, we were able to make a compelling case for a plan that better balances the needs of the entire water management system.
For the Caloosahatchee the selected plan is predicted to improve conditions by:
· Capping regulatory flows from the lake in the operational band (Zone D) at 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) measured at the Franklin Lock (S-79). By measuring flows at S-79, the Corps must consider freshwater flows from the Caloosahatchee watershed when determining how much water can be released from the lake.
· Reducing lake-derived stressful and damaging discharge events to the Caloosahatchee by 63 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
· Increasing the amount of time that the Caloosahatchee receives optimal flows (750–2,100 cfs) by 30 percent relative to the future without (NA25) baseline.
· Reducing total regulatory discharges to the Caloosahatchee by 3 percent relative to the NA25 baseline.
· Allowing beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee down to the Water Shortage Management Band of the lake schedule. This will ensure that the Caloosahatchee receives beneficial flows even when conditions are dry and lake levels are low.
The plan will also greatly improve performance for the St. Lucie estuary and America’s Everglades. It will reduce total regulatory discharges to the St. Lucie by 37 percent and reduce stressful and damaging discharges by 78 percent and 74 percent, respectively. The plan will triple the amount of water that can be sent south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, reducing the potential for damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries.
While the plan will improve performance for the estuaries and Everglades, it is predicted to hold lake levels higher more frequently, which could impact the ecology of Lake Okeechobee. However, the Corps will have flexibility in the plan to improve conditions in the lake periodically using lake recovery periods.
Overall, the plan is a significant improvement for most parts of the water management system. However, we do remain concerned about the Corps’ plan to implement a water conservation mode component to the plan. This would primarily benefit agricultural water supply and could result in freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee and Everglades being cutback when lake levels are low. This is an issue that we will continue to follow closely as the Corps develops the operational guidance for the plan.
We thank all of you who answered our calls to action and sent emails and letters to the Army Corps! Without you, we would not be in the position that we are in as we take the next steps in finalizing the plan. We also thank all of our partners who worked tirelessly to keep the pressure on the Army Corps to adopt an equitable plan. Our job is not done and we still have more work to do to get this plan to the finish line.
On Dec. 13, the Army Corps will hold another Project Delivery Team meeting to provide a more in-depth evaluation of the selected plan. Over the next several weeks, they will also be developing the operational plan, which will be provide the written guidance on how the plan is executed. Stakeholders will also have an opportunity to provide input on this important step of the process. SCCF and Conservancy staff will remain engaged throughout the remainder of the process and will provide periodic updates as we work towards adoption of the new plan.
On behalf of everyone at SCCF and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, we thank you for your continued engagement in the LOSOM process.