Guest opinion: Explaining Corps’ strategy in use for managing Lake O during dry season

To me, getting the water right has meant incorporating flexibility into decision making….

Guest opinion: Explaining Corps' strategy in use for managing Lake O during dry season 1
Guest opinion: Explaining Corps' strategy in use for managing Lake O during dry season 2

Col. Andrew Kelly
 |  Special to The News-Press

When we developed the dry season water management strategy for Lake Okeechobee this year, we incorporated crucial flexibility to respond to the potential threat of algal blooms while also remembering the events over the last several years. We use these two concepts, memory and flexibility, to guide our strategy development.

The concept of memory in water management, means incorporating more than just calculations and flow charts into our decision making, but also including contextual data. What has led to the conditions we are in now? What challenges have we faced over the last couple years? How have natural events and human decisions impacted the system? Is there a way to improve circumstances and what are the risks of doing so? I ask the people on my team these questions because the answers can’t be found in a database or flow chart.

An excellent example of this approach is the 2018 draw down of Lake Okeechobee. After years of high turbid water causing massive die offs of submerged aquatic vegetation and fueling of algal blooms, we released water to lower the lake and allowed the vegetation to recover, even though the schedule did not specifically call for releases. Remembering the past few years allowed us to use solid science and weigh potential effects to water supply as we drew down the lake and attempted to get the water right that year.

More: Army Corps looking to lower Lake Okeechobee levels between now and start of next rainy season

To me, getting the water right has meant incorporating flexibility into decision making. This allows us to have context – to see the pieces of the story that don’t fit into a box on a chart. New information, new memories, new science and of course the curve balls that mother nature keeps slinging at south Florida can be met with flexibility.

The Harmful Algal Bloom Deviation to LORS 2008, approved in September of 2020, integrates flexibility into the schedule when the risk of algal blooms is high. We are beginning releases now in the dry season in order to reduce the risk of having to make releases when there is a bloom in the system.  Without the flexibility of that deviation, the schedule would have us releasing a lot less water and heading for a forecasted lake level of 14 feet on June 1 and a high chance of releases early in the next rainy season.

As we go forward further into the dry season, we continue to experience the effects of a La Niña, which in memories of years past, has sometimes brought drier patterns to south Florida in the winter months. The science is still not perfect on predicting long-term rainfall and so the effects of the La Niña on Lake Okeechobee are still somewhat of an unknown.

So we will be flexible. The only thing I won’t be flexible on is my commitment to using the available data to make decisions that balance the purposes of Lake Okeechobee water management set by Congress. I will do everything I can to get to the right balance this dry season.

Col. Andrew Kelly is thecommander of the Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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