A letter written by several local agencies, agriculture associations, and former government officials is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Army Corps) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) not to lower the water levels of Lake Okeechobee any further.
“We write to express our grave concerns with the decisions currently being made by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with the South Florida Water Management District’s support, that could drive the lake to extreme low levels,” the signatories said.
“The South Florida region has lived through prior agency decisions to lower the lake in the dry season in anticipation of wet season rain that never came. Severe economic and environmental consequences resulted from those decisions. Many have experienced the harsh reality of gambling on Mother Nature and being wrong.”
That is, the signatories’ primary concern is a decision to keep the lake low in anticipation of heavy summer rains.
If those rains do hit, having the lake at a low level beforehand could avert the need for discharges. Lake Okeechobee can’t get too high, lest it runs the risk of breaking the Herbert Hoover Dike, especially in the case of a major storm. That necessitates discharging water from the lake, which can contribute to the spread of blue-green algae.
But if the projections months out are wrong and Florida gets hit with a dry summer, low lake levels combined with evaporation would drop the lake even lower.
That could cause problems for those who rely on the lake’s water. That includes farmers in the area as well as several local municipalities south of the lake that utilize water from Lake Okeechobee.
Among those signing the letter are the cities of Okeechobee and West Palm Beach, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, and former SFWMD Executive Director Henry Dean.
“Congress spoke clearly when it stated that the lake was to serve multiple purposes and the lake’s regulation schedule was to balance all authorized C&SF Project purposes,” the letter read.
“The prudent approach, supported by sound independent science, is to take advantage of the billions of dollars spent to date to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike, and store more water in the lake, not less.”
The Army Corps has leeway to keep the lake low under the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, which was set in 2008. Though the lake typically sits between 12.5 and 15.5 feet, it can go lower or higher than that range in certain circumstances, such as preparing for projected heavy rains.
In addition, the Army Corps is currently taking public comment on the new regulation schedule for Lake Okeechobee. That new schedule is likely to kick in once anticipated upgrades to the Herbert Hoover Dike are completed.
Col. Kelly testified about those plans at a February hearing with the Florida congressional delegation in Washington D.C. While he did not commit to raising the levels once the new schedule kicks in, he said the dike upgrades should be able to handle the lake returning to pre-2008 levels, which were nearly 2 feet higher.
“We look forward to partnering with the SFWMD and the Corps in the management of the system, within the approved schedules, not a politically-concocted approach, lacking scientific support,” the letter said in closing.
“Our water resources are too precious to gamble with anything less.”