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Conservationists Say Lake O Plan Still Favors Water Supply Over Everglades

Miami Herald Archive

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves to the final phase of writing a new management plan for Lake Okeechobee, concerns remain over water reaching the parched Everglades.

The plan, expected to guide lake operations for at least a decade, coincides with the completion of nearly $2 billion in repairs to the aging Herbert Hoover Dike. Those repairs will allow the Corps to: keep lake levels at least a foot and a half higher in the wet season, allow water managers to lessen polluted discharges to northern estuaries and strike a better balance between flood control and water supply to farm lands, utilities and the environment.

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But during the dry season, when lake levels drop, Everglades Foundation chief science officer Steve Davis said the wilted marshes still get shorted on necessary water to protect water supply.

“We think to bring about balance, we need to move water where it provides the greatest overall benefit. And we know that's not watering sugar farms,” he said. “It's providing flows to the Everglades.”

Over the spring and summer, the Corps held more than a half dozen meetings on an array of plans that keep the lake higher or lower at various times of the year. Under the old plan, the Corps tried to maintain lake levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet while it finished repairs to the 1940s-era dike. That plan regularly required flushing polluted lake water, that can fuel toxic algae blooms, to estuaries during the rainy season.

The new plan, selected last month, dramatically reduces those discharges to the St. Lucie Estuary. It also lessens, although not as much, releases to the Caloosahatchee River.

But as the lake recedes during the dry season, water moved south would stop once levels reach 13 feet. Farms would continue to receive water until levels drop by another one to 2.5 feet.

“It’s called the beneficial use zone and that might make you think that's a good thing. But really what the beneficial use zone does is protect water for water supply, primarily for the farms south of Lake Okeechobee,” said Davis. “That water is just really hoarded within the lake as they need it. If they don't need it, it just sits there.”

The Everglades Foundation has urged the Corps to remove the band — which dictates lake releases — so that wetlands that replenish the aquifer and Florida Bay, Davis said, can get water when it needs it most: during the dry season. That’s also the goal of the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan, now expected to cost $23 billion.

“The benefits of Everglades restoration across the entire program were mostly realized in that transition from the wet season to the dry season,” said Davis. “Right now, it's wet when it rains and then it dries out completely. By the time you get to March or April into early May, the Everglades is on fire and water levels are two to three feet below the surface.”

Corps planners have said they will tweak the plan in the coming months to wring out the most benefits. They intend to complete a federally required environmental study to determine impacts in early 2022 and in time to issue a final plan in October 2022. Another meeting on the plan is scheduled for Aug. 9.

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