Commissioner Corner: Checking In On Lake O

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By: County Commissioner Robert Weinroth Dist. 4 Special to the Boca and Delray newspapers

Lake Okeechobee has been in the news, most recently due to attention being paid to the level at which the US Army Core of Engineers maintains it in the period leading up to the summer.

Last month, Palm Beach County’s Board of County Commissioners met with commissioners from Glades, Hendry, Martin and Okeechobee counties to address this issue, recognizing that Lake Okeechobee is the lifeblood of our communities. About 350 people attended the meeting with most of them residing or working in communities with a heavy reliance on the lake’s water for irrigation and tourism.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is on the front line for preserving agricultural, industrial, household, recreational and environmental activities. The Corps is rewriting the blueprint that oversees lake management, including the water levels. The so-called Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, is scheduled to be completed and ready to use in 2022.

Palm Beach County Commissioners expressed the concern that lower lake levels will disrupt drinking water supplies if there is a drought with West Palm Beach and Palm Beach relying on the lake as a backup water source. West Palm Beach Assistant City Administrator Scott Kelly reminded the commissioners that the city had less than two-weeks water supply when the lake got too low in 2001, dropping below 9 feet.

The commissioners agree that securing funding from the Federal and State government to fully restore the Herbert Hoover Dike and collaborating to protect this invaluable resource would remain the jointly held mission of all communities surrounding and downstream of the lake.

Keeping the lake level lower in the winter (dry season) to make room for heavy rains in the summer (rainy season) is a controversial proposal with as many critics as supporters.

Compounding the issue is the fact that recreational boating has been curtailed as vessels become stranded due to low lake levels and a lack of dredging.

Those pushing for the lower lake levels argue it will reduce the need for the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge excess lake water through the C-44 Canal during the summer thereby forestalling the toxic blue-green algae blooms from polluting the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean.

The general consensus is to allow the USCE scientists the task of establishing the most appropriate lake water levels (unfettered by political influences) to balance the interests of community residents.

The day after the joint commission meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried appointed Christopher Pettit as the new director of agricultural water policy for the state.

Pettit previously served in the Office of Counsel for the South Florida Water Management District. One of his jobs will be to develop farming practices least harmful to the environment and work with farmers to implement them to reduce the nutrient-laden water flowing into the lake from the north.

The real key to better management of the lake levels and the outflows from the lake is the 143-mile long Herbert Hoover dike.

The 70-year-old dike is in desperate need of repairs. Its current condition poses a “grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida” due to the possibility it could breach if the lake level gets too high. As a result, the Corps has maintained a lake level between 12.5 – 15.5 feet.

When the lake level gets too high, water is discharged through the Caloosahatchee River (C43) and St. Lucie Canal (C44) to keep the people living around the lake safe. However, if the lake level is too low or high, plant and aquatic life in the lake suffer.

Over 564,000 acre-feet of water storage was lost when the LORS schedule was updated due to the faulty Herbert Hoover dike. The Corps expects the dike rehabilitation to be completed between 2020 and 2025.

Until the repairs are complete, the debate over lake height and the amount of water the Corps must discharge to the estuaries (impacting farms, businesses, and residents around the lake) will likely continue.