I’m thankful this year was different. This time last year, Jacksonville District was only a month into executing operational flexibility for Lake Okeechobee aimed at drawing the lake down a little lower than normal. What a difference a year makes.
Working together with our stakeholders, we seized opportunities to created conditions for the regeneration of submerged aquatic vegetation decimated by several years of high lake levels and Hurricane Irma. Although it takes time for the vegetation to rebound fully, preliminary reports indicate coverage increased from 5,000 acres to 28,000, setting conditions to help the long-term ecology of the lake.
The partnership and trust we rejuvenated this year will serve us well into the future. Keeping with our plan, we released even more water in the spring to help mitigate above-average precipitation that occurred. That decision caused a lot of concern in downstream communities who requested reductions. In addition to maintaining course and lowering the lake for ecological reasons, we believed releasing more water then, when algae was absent from the lake, would reduce the risk of another season of significant blue-green algae issues in the estuaries. We were able to absorb heavy rains during the month of August that caused the lake stage to rise two feet. Further, we were in an advantageous position when Hurricane Dorian threatened the area.
I’m thankful that we got through this year without major impacts to water supply. When we made our decision to use our flexibility last fall, some warned of future water restrictions and discussed harsh droughts of years past. We made it through the year without those fears being realized and were able to adequately balance the multiple purposes of water within the lake.
I’m thankful for the businesses, fishermen, and recreational boaters for their patience in dealing with conditions that are challenging when the lake gets low. Without question, a lower lake increases navigational risks for boaters. Managing water in the lake often means that achieving goals to help one aspect of the lake come at the expense of another. Our responsibility is to continue to find balance between competing purposes so that this resource provides an overall benefit to people living and working in south Florida.
What does 2020 hold? We continue to work on implementing a deviation that would give us another tool to use when harmful algae is present or anticipated on the lake. Under our proposed deviation, we would release less than the LORS guidance when blooms are present or anticipated, in exchange for the flexibility to release that water, in addition to the water that would normally be released, when algae is absent. In other words, when conditions indicate an impending algae bloom threat, we would time releases in a manner that avoids harm to downstream communities while releasing the same volume of water in the aggregate.
This year we will also work hard on the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). The bulk of 2020 will be focused on modeling, evaluation, and refining operational plans, leading us to selection of a preferred plan in 2021. We appreciate the energy as the public participation thus far has been amazing. We pledge to keep the momentum going and will continue engaging everyone throughout the process
I am thankful for all of the comments and feedback we’ve received regarding the management of water in Lake Okeechobee. It’s a testament to the passion that people feel on this topic, and the shared desire to find more flexible solutions. I look forward to working with you in 2020!