By James Evans
SCCF Environmental Policy Director
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of developing a new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule that will provide new guidance on how the Army Corps will manage water in Lake Okeechobee for the different parts of South Florida’s complex water management system. The new schedule is called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual or LOSOM for short.
LOSOM will consider additional infrastructure that will soon be operational, including rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, Kissimmee River Restoration, and Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects such as the C-43 Reservoir located within the Caloosahatchee watershed and the C-44 Reservoir located in the St. Lucie watershed. LOSOM is supposed to balance the various project purposes of the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF): flood control; navigation; water supply for agricultural irrigation, municipalities, industry, and Everglades National Park; regional groundwater and salinity control; enhancement of fish and wildlife; and recreation.
Extensive drainage work that has occurred in the Caloosahatchee watershed over the past century resulted in a system that drains very quickly with little to no treatment, resulting in water of poor quality being delivered to the estuary and the coast. Because of these hydrological changes, the Caloosahatchee currently receives the lion’s share of the harmful discharges from the lake during the rainy season and is often cut off from beneficial flows during the dry season. This has resulted in wide-ranging damage to the estuary and its ecosystems, including impacts to freshwater tape grass, oysters, and sea grasses that depend on a balance of fresh and saltwater.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is the roadmap to restoring the ecosystem damage caused by the C&SF Project. The goal of CERP is to restore the quality, quantity, timing, and distribution of freshwater flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay and the northern estuaries of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie. The plan relies on massive infrastructure projects to store, treat, and convey freshwater to the Everglades and reduce damaging discharges to the northern estuaries.
While we wait for Everglades restoration to be completed, we have the opportunity to better balance the needs of our natural systems through development of the new lake regulation schedule. LOSOM is not designed to solve all our water management issues—although some stakeholders are using LOSOM to push for near-perfect water management conditions without the infrastructure to support such a request.
The Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District will need to make challenging decisions about how best to balance the needs of the system. It is unacceptable to continue to operate the system to benefit private landowners at the expense of our public resources.