Senate President Wilton Simpson is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to adopt clear language allowing Florida to maintain some control of the Lake Okeechobee water supply as the Corps works to finalize language for the lake’s new regulation schedule.
That’s according to a report from POLITICO’s Bruce Ritchie.
Simpson, who is running in 2022 to become the state’s next Agriculture Commissioner, wrote a letter Wednesday to Col. James Booth, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. That letter was sent one day after the Corps released its optimal model run Tuesday.
That model lays out the Corps’ main priorities in the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). The Corps is set to spell out the manual’s language by December, and Simpson wants to make sure the state still has a say.
“As you begin your work as district commander and the Corps finalizes the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual and associated environmental impact statement, I am writing to share a concern that in the final materials it should be clear the schedule being developed is not overly prescriptive in a way that infringes on Florida’s ability to allocate water,” Simpson wrote in his letter to Booth.
“Specifically, express language relying on the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) authority to allocate water as the lake approaches the Water Shortage Management Line needs to be included in the lake schedule and acknowledged in the environmental impact statement.”
Simpson, who earned much of his fortune in the farming industry before joining the Legislature, has looked to shape the state’s water policy, including in Lake O. Before the 2021 Legislative Session, Simpson pushed for additional construction to help store water north of the lake. The Legislature responded with a $50 million package, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in early June.
Now, Simpson wants to ensure the SFWMD maintains authority to direct water discharged from Lake O into areas where cities and farms can utilize that water.
According to POLITICO’s report, Corps spokesperson James Yocum did not directly engage in a public back-and-forth when asked about Simpson’s letter, noting the LOSOM language is still being finalized. Yocum did, however, restate the Corps’ commitment to cooperating with the SFWMD Governing Board.
“We have been very clear that our partnership with SFWMD is a model for what federal and state agency relationships should look like, and I expect that to continue to be the case,” Yocum said.
The LOSOM plan will see more of the water discharged from Lake O being sent southward to the Everglades, rather than to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. That water can contain toxic blue-green algae, which populates Lake O, leading to advocates along the coasts pushing for fewer overall discharges.
Lake Okeechobee’s water levels would also be kept higher under LOSOM. That’s possible because of soon-to-be-completed improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
The Corps’ Tuesday announcement led to mixed reactions from lawmakers and advocates. The regulation plan continues a perpetual debate about where Lake O’s water should go.
Keeping the lake too high runs the risk of flooding during a storm. That means water must be periodically discharged, running the risk of carrying toxic blue-green algae and spreading into other waterways. But farmers also depend on Lake O’s water supply, as do municipalities. That leads to a tug-of-war where competing regions battle over whether to receive more water or less.
Simpson reiterated the importance of the ongoing debate in his Wednesday letter.
“Lake Okeechobee is the heart of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project and of an interconnected regional aquatic ecosystem. The lake has many purposes, including agricultural and urban water supply, flood protection, fulfilling Seminole Tribe water rights, recreation, and fish and wildlife preservation and enhancement,” Simpson wrote.
“The 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule was a painful but necessary schedule to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Now, with the improvements to the dike, and the expedited storage both north and south of the lake, we look forward to a significantly improved hydrological system.”