You might as well forget the term “shared adversity.” The Army Corps of Engineers is adopting a new strategy with the next Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule that should be termed “redistribution of adversity to the Caloosahatchee” instead.
The new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual or LOSOM, will determine when and how much water is released from the lake and where it goes. One of the Corps’ stated goals for LOSOM is to “balance” all project purposes — flood control, water supply for agricultural, urban and environmental uses, navigation, preservation of fish and wildlife, and recreation.
On May 7, the Corps presented its so-called “balanced alternatives” to the Project Delivery Team — a group of government and agency stakeholders overseeing the project. The proposals presented were anything but balanced when it comes to the Caloosahatchee River.
Of the five options presented, two would eliminate all flows to the St. Lucie estuary, except when lake levels get above critical levels — resulting in increased high-volume damaging discharges to the Caloosahatchee. One alternative was put together by lobbyists for the Florida Sugar Cane League, labeled the “Lakeside Communities Plan”— need I say more?
The fourth plan would cut back flows to the Caloosahatchee below the minimum needed to sustain the estuary during the dry season, just so water can be held and dumped with toxic algae into the Caloosahatchee in the wet season. The last alternative relies heavily on what the Corps calls “operational flexibility,” which is Corps-speak for adaptive management.
Over the past couple years, the Corps has done a pretty good job by releasing water during the dry season to get water levels low for the wet season. Unfortunately, the LOSOM process has shown that the Corps’ decisions are based less on science and more on politics. Given this fact, it may not be in the best interest of our coastal communities and natural systems to depend on the political winds to blow a favorable decision our way.
Balance starts with where we measure flows to the estuaries. The Corps’ proposed alternatives would measure flows to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee in different locations with respect the lake and estuaries. The Corps measures flows to the Caloosahatchee at the Franklin Lock (S-79), at the start of the estuary, when lake levels are low or when conditions are dry.
However, when lake levels are high or conditions are wet, the schedule measures flow at the lake at the Moore Haven Lock (S-77). This is important, because when the Corps measures at S-77, the target flows do not include watershed runoff. Yet, in the St. Lucie, all flows are measured at the estuary at the S-80 structure and watershed runoff is included. This inequity allows the Corps to send much higher flows to the Caloosahatchee regardless of watershed flows, which can make up half of the damaging water we receive in the estuary.
Since the LOSOM process began, the City of Sanibel and other west coast stakeholders have urged the Corps to address this by measuring all flows at the Franklin Lock.
If the Corps is serious about balancing the purposes of LOSOM, it needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror to see if it is doing the work of the people or the work of a few powerful individuals.
It is unacceptable to sacrifice the public resources of the Caloosahatchee and the coastal communities of Lee County to protect other parts of the south Florida water management system.
James Evans is SCCF Environmental Policy Director. Founded in 1967, SCCF’s (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation) mission is to protect and care for Southwest Florida’s coastal ecosystems.