After he took charge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District in 2018, Col. Andrew Kelly charged his team to look for tools that would offer different options for the management of water in Lake Okeechobee during times when harmful algal blooms (HABs) were present.
Significant HAB events affected Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries in 2016 and 2018. Jacksonville District engineers and biologists reviewed the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) and looked for potential tools to adjust operations in anticipation of possible future HAB events.
Last summer, Jacksonville District rolled out a proposed deviation to LORS that would provide greater flexibility in the management of water with the goal of reducing the health risk to the public associated with HABs.
“The proposed Planned Deviation would allow the Corps to adjust its current water control plan when Harmful Algal Blooms are present,” said Andy LoSchiavo, a biologist in the Environmental Branch of Jacksonville District’s Planning and Policy Division. “The proposed action will enhance the ability of the Corps to respond to HABs within its authority by allowing preemptive releases to create storage to allow for holding back releases should HAB occur in the future. Essentially, it moves the timing of releases to earlier in the year if HABs are expected to occur.”
The proposed deviation will allow the Corps to alter the timing and volume of Lake Okeechobee releases to the Water Conservation Areas, east, and west to allow for greater flexibility with water management decisions when HABs are present or forecasted in Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries, or the system of canals that connect them.
Jacksonville District staff published a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and Proposed Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) August 6 related to the proposed changes. The Draft EA and Proposed FONSI for a Planned Deviation to the Water Control Plan for Lake Okeechobee and Everglades Agricultural Area (LORS 2008), was made available online at https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/About/Divisions-Offices/Planning/Environmental-Branch/Environmental-Documents/. Comments were accepted until September 20.
The Corps received more than 1,000 letters containing comments on the draft EA. Since that time, the Corps has been in the process of evaluating public comments and performing additional analysis to address those comments and further refine its plan. Due to the number of comments the Corps has received and the subsequent additional technical analysis, the Corps currently intends to release a revised National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document within the coming weeks, with the goal of having the proposed deviation finalized early in the wet season.
Based on the agency and public comment received, the revised NEPA document will consider HABs as well as reflecting the Corps’ most recent Endangered Species Act consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Services and United States Fish and Wildlife Service which addresses the potential impacts of HABs to listed species, and the Corps will update its cumulative impacts analysis in the revised NEPA document to include climate change as it relates to HABs.
Due to recent drier conditions and water levels on Lake Okeechobee, there is no need to implement the proposed deviation immediately.
The Corps will notify agencies and members of the public when the revised NEPA document for the Proposed Planned Deviation is available for review and comment at: https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Deviations/.