homepage logo

United we must stand

By Staff | Aug 2, 2021

To say the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan of choice to manage Lake Okeechobee over the next decade or so was greeted with mixed reviews this week might be the PC understatement of the year.

The Corps’ selection of Alternative CC –aka Balanced Alternative CC– over five other options for its new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual was greeted with support from Congressman Brian Mast, who has long led the charge for better management of the lake and its discharges to the east and the west via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, respectively.

“Today is the outcome we’ve been working towards for years, but it’s far from a checkered flag, and we can’t let our foot off the gas,” Rep. Mast said in a release issued Monday, the day the Corps announced its selected alternative.

He immediately jumped ahead to the next step, the “optimization process” that will lead to an approved management plan later this summer.

“Optimization can’t be used as code for ‘bait and switch.’ The east coast has made compromise after compromise, and we will not accept more discharges that harm our communities while we receive no benefits,” he added.

Reaction from officials here in Lee County also was immediate but from the flip side of the same “stop sending nutrient-laden, algae-infested Lake-O discharges our way” coin.

Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane gathered mayors from throughout the county Monday to denounce the announced option, saying it could open the floodgates to an environmental disaster worse than the one that devastated Southwest Florida in 2018, which left our beaches littered with dead fish by the ton and our river and canals coated with green slime.

“We need open heart surgery,” Commissioner Ruane said of the plan following Monday’s joint session that included not only local officials but Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The county’s consultant on the issue was equally blunt, calling Alternative CC a “train wreck.”

Lee County officials maintain the alternative as proposed would create a “huge inequity of flows and releases” that would direct less water to the east but catastrophically more to the west.

“We are asking for balance,” said Dan DeLisi, Lee County’s consultant on the process, adding the CC option does not provide for a fair distribution of the discharges needed to keep Lake Okeechobee at a safe level during the rainy season.

A letter and email writing campaign in opposition to Alternative CC is under way.

The Friends of the Everglades, meanwhile, weighed in in favor, calling the CC option “a win for the entire region” — with modifications to mitigate Lee County concerns.

“Friends of the Everglades and our supporters have for weeks urged the Corps to select an enhanced version of CC, the most balanced overall proposal,” the organization said in a release this week.

“It sends more water to the parched Everglades and Florida Bay. It slashes discharges to the St. Lucie Estuary, and outpaced the other five plans in terms of recreation and water supply to the lower East Coast.

“But as we’ve noted, and Corps officials averred during Monday’s announcement, Plan CC is far from perfect. It must be modified to inflict less harm on the Caloosahatchee.”

“While we’re encouraged by the Army Corps’ selection of Plan CC, the new Lake O playbook won’t be successful unless it’s optimized to bring necessary relief to the Caloosahatchee Estuary — without sending additional water to the St. Lucie,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades. “This can be accomplished by sending additional clean water south during the dry season, rather than stockpiling it in the lake for irrigation of large corporate sugarcane growers south of Lake Okeechobee.”

The organization has specifically come out against any attempt to “punch” or “slap” St. Lucie, i.e. redirect discharges that way.

So where are we now that we have a plan — or the framework of one?

For concerned residents who have fought for years — for decades — for a better management effort, one that restores the Everglades, we are seeing progress. That is thanks to federal and state recognition of the issue and joint funding — more than $2 billion in state money alone in the last three years — for the infrastructure needed to make restoration happen.

Regarding the new plan for managing the 730-square-mile lake while hitting the Corps’ 11 objectives (which include continued protection of the dike that surrounds the lake and related flood control; reducing the algal bloom risk in the lake and affected estuaries; enhancing the ecology of the lake, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and south Florida by sending more water south to benefit the ‘Glades; and maintaining congressionally authorized navigation and recreation projects) we agree — we’re not quite there.

According to the Army Corps, Alternative CC is “not an actual water management plan, but is a framework that will be optimized over the next several months.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to update the plan in August with new modeling in September. The date the LOSOM could go into effect is November of 2022 upon the expected completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike rehab project.

The “optimization” process bears both watching and involvement and we again agree, balance is going to be key.

The issue is not east coast vs west but the need for a united front that we all, as Floridians, have had enough — enough of a “management plan” that for too long has been driven more by politics and power than by environmental objectives.

The centroid of balance is our common goal: Protection and prioritization of South Florida’s watershed.

The Caloosahatchee and its estuaries.

The Gulf.

The St. Lucie and its estuaries.

Lake Okeechobee and its environs.

The Everglades.

United — and unwavering — we must stand.

The operating manual ultimately approved is not only a plan for the next 10 years. It is a plan that will determine our future — and our fate.

–Citizen editorial