For 37 years, the Everglades Coalition has been meeting in South Florida to discuss restoration of America’s River of Grass. It’s safe to say that the topic of water management has been a major part of that discussion every year.
“When we move water, where it goes, where it flows, is critical to everything, especially in terms of Everglades restoration,” said Reinaldo Diaz, the Lake Worth Waterkeeper and moderator of one of the more popular plenary sessions during the annual Everglades Coalition Conference held in Duck Key, Florida between Jan. 6-8.
The panel, titled Managing Water to Restore and Preserve the Everglades, Estuaries and Climate Resilience, was focused on LOSOM and how it can improve conditions for stakeholders throughout the Central and South Florida System.
“Everglades restoration is very likely the largest and most complex human engineering project that has ever been taken on in human history,” Diaz said. “At the heart of that is a piece of policy called LOSOM – the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. Lake Okeechobee is the heartbeat of the greater Everglades ecosystem, and LOSOM is the policy that is going to give us the next rule book on how we are going to take Lake Okeechobee water and send it throughout the system.”
LOSOM may the policy that will drive the lake operations, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representative on the panel insisted that where most see a system, she sees people. USACE is charged with managing the lake in a way that balances the five Congressionally authorized purposes – water supply, flood control, preservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife, navigation, and recreation.
“How the Corps works to help our communities be more resilient in South Florida is by helping provide those five project purposes,” said Eva Velez, chief of the Ecosystem Branch of USACE’s Jacksonville District. “We have to think about those needs every day. We have to think about how we move water through the Central and South Florida System because there are people in each area of that system.”
Velez pointed out that in the past three years that USACE has been working on LOSOM, those communities have come out consistently to help identify the best options for managing the lake in a way that balances the needs of all those groups.
Velez said that the current model selected in November of 2021 that will serve as the basis for the eventual water control plan has brought together many of the stakeholders, and there appears to be a consensus among stakeholders that LOSOM is going to be significantly better than the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule from 2008.
One of those stakeholders is Eve Samples, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades. Samples joined Velez on the panel to discuss LOSOM, and said from her perspective, the current model chosen for the project provides some good news, but also some areas for improvement.
“The good news is the St. Lucie estuary will get about a 37% reduction in average annual releases from the lake compared to if we took no action,” Samples said as she began to list out benefits of the new model. “The Lake Worth Lagoon will also see its average annual volumes reduced by 83%. The Caloosahatchee Estuary, under the original proposal for LOSOM was not going to have much benefit, and in fact could have been harmed. Under the current model that LOSOM is being written around, it will increase optimal flows by 30%. The LOSOM plan we are looking at today will more than triple flows south from about 60,000 acre feet per year to about 203,000 acre feet per year.”
But while the current model for LOSOM provides great improvement over the current schedule, there are areas where Samples would like to see additional improvement – specifically by reducing the amount of time Lake Okeechobee spends at higher levels, reducing the flows to the St. Lucie estuary even more, and focusing on environment rather than water supply.
Velez said during her presentation that the kind of stakeholder feedback Samples and others provide are critical to getting LOSOM right, and the three years spent working on the operations manual so far has focused on the communities that will benefit from the new manual.
“We in the past had to focus on the risk of the Herbert Hoover Dike when we talk about water management,” Velez said. “With LOSOM, we are able to focus on the benefits water management provides. We have stakeholders everywhere in the system who are part of this and helping us get this done.”
Part of the task USACE and the stakeholders had to face was developing a water management plan that allowed for flexibility when the famously unpredictable Florida environment makes causes less than optimal performance from a more rigid plan.
“The goal of LOSOM is to incorporate flexibility while meeting those project purposes,” Velez said. “We’re proud to partner with cities, counties, states, and tribes to do that.”
As the LOSOM project enters the final stretch, that stakeholder input is more important than ever. Between now and April, USACE will focus on writing the water control plan and the draft environmental impact statement, which will include significant opportunities for agency and public reviews and feedback.