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How High Should Lake Okeechobee Go? Army Corps Is Finalizing A New Management Plan

Sunrise over Lake Okeechobee near the City of Okeechobee.
Sunrise over Lake Okeechobee near the City of Okeechobee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released modeling results this week for a new set of operational plans for Lake Okeechobee, that could define the lake for years to come.

How the lake is managed — and whether water levels remain artificially high or the lake returns to its more natural, shallower levels — could steer the course for Everglades restoration.

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At Thursday’s South Florida Water Management District meeting, just hours after the technical documents were released Wednesday evening on eight different alternatives, district officials said they were still trying to parse the results.

“I got the email at 5:19 last night, so I have not gone through all of the reams of data to look at all the different projections and the modeling results,” district chief engineer John Mitnik told the district's governing board.

The Corps plans to hold a series of meetings to gather input before selecting a plan by Aug. 4. It hopes to have a final decision by November next year, to coincide with the completion of repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.

Conservationists and coastal communities who have battled algae blooms, collapsing southern marshes and wilting seagrass meadows want the lake managed lower.

“We are tied to an unnatural system in which we receive no benefit from and only varying degrees of harm,” Stuart Vice Mayor Merritt Matheson said.

But utilities and agricultural communities around the lake, including the powerful sugar industry, want water higher.

“What they want to make sure doesn’t get lost in [the operating plan] is water supply for agriculture and a healthy Lake Okeechobee,” said Tom MacVicar, a consultant representing Glades and Hendry counties and four other lakeside governments along with the Okeechobee Utility Authority.

The new operating plan comes as the Corps wraps up $1.8 billion in repairs to the 80-year old Herbert Hoover Dike. The Corps began operating the lake at lower levels after launching a nationwide survey of dams and flood control structures following the collapse of New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The inspection for the aging Herbert Hoover Dike revealed “a grave and imminent danger to the people and environment of South Florida."

Before the Corps constructed South Florida’s massive flood control system in the 1940s and connected the lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, lake water flowed south over its bottom rim into southern marshes. That helped create the rich muck in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Today, water gets flushed out the rivers when the lake rises too high, usually during the rainy season. That can set the stage for algae blooms now beginning to appear in estuaries.

“Lake Okeechobee has been operated as a reservoir for industrial agriculture south of the lake,” Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, told governing board members Thursday. “As a result, the lake is held artificially high in the dry season, leading to more of these toxic algae threats.”

The Corps plans to hold its first meeting on modeling for the various plans next Thursday, June 17, with follow up meetings on June 22 and June 30. The district will hold a public workshop June 29. The meetings will include time for public comment. For more information or to register for the meetings, click here.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.