By Eve Samples, Friends of the Everglades
For too many decades, Florida’s water priorities have been misguided.
We’ve kept Lake Okeechobee artificially high during the dry months in order to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of corporate-owned sugarcane fields south of the lake.
Then, when the rainy season arrives, the Army Corps of Engineers lowers the 730-square-mile lake the fastest way it can: by opening floodgates east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River, where the massive, polluted flows prompt toxic algae blooms.
Meanwhile, sugarcane fields south of Lake O are protected from extra water by the state’s South Florida Water Management District. In addition to ideal irrigation, the industry gets near-perfect drainage, too.
The toxic blue-green algae crises of 2016 and 2018 widely exposed Florida’s water-management system for what it is: a boon to large corporate sugar companies — and a threat to public health, our ecosystems and our economy.
The status quo has brought the northern estuaries (including the Lake Worth Lagoon, which also receives lake water) to the brink of collapse. It has abused the Everglades and Florida Bay by starving them of freshwater flows from Lake O.
We at Friends of the Everglades have been advocating for a more equitable Lake Okeechobee plan — and the good news is we’re closer than ever to getting one. But significant work lies ahead, and this is a critical time for Floridians to make our voices heard.
The Army Corps of Engineers is in the final stages of selecting a new playbook that will determine when and where water moves from Lake O over the next decade. The new plan, called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), has the potential to reduce Lake O discharges to the northern estuaries and send more water to the parched Everglades and Florida Bay.
On July 19, the Army Corps announced its preliminary preferred plan from six alternatives. Its choice, Alternative CC, was the best starting point — but it is not perfect. Most notably, it fails to bring adequate relief to the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
The Army Corps of Engineers is seeking input on how to improve CC.
We are asking the Army Corps to enhance LOSOM Alternative CC by sending more Lake O water south during the dry season, until the lake gets down to what’s known as the Water Shortage Management Band.
By sending Lake O water south more weeks of the year, the lake will have greater capacity to hold water that would otherwise devastate the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. At the same time, necessary flows would be restored to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
We need the Army Corps and the South Florida Water Management District, which is steered by nine appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis, to work together to make this happen. While the Army Corps is responsible for writing the lake plan, the District controls three of the six lake outflows.
For the past several weeks, Army Corps Col. Andrew Kelly has been on a listening tour to get feedback on the proposed Lake O plan. I joined Kelly at a roundtable on July 27, and it’s clear he understands the threats posed by blue-green algae blooms and takes his mission to protect public health seriously. Part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ mission statement is to “reduce risks from disasters.”
On Monday, Aug. 9, the agency will reveal how it intends “optimize” Alternative CC.
Now is not the time to ease up.
The new LOSOM plan is an opportunity to avert disasters triggered by Lake O releases carrying toxic algae. It’s an opportunity to send more clean water south, where it can replenish the aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of South Florida residents.
Plan CC puts us on the right path — but lobbyists for large sugar corporations are at the table as the Lake O plan is being crafted.
We’ve got to get this right.
A former Friends of the Everglades director once said, “Saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet.”
Here’s a corollary to that adage:
Getting LOSOM right is a test. If we pass we may get to save the Everglades.
Visit www.everglades.org/losom-chance-for-relief to join us in asking the Army Corps to support a Lake Okeechobee plan that protects Floridians, not just special interests.
Eve Samples is executive director of Friends of the Everglades, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.