By Col. Jason Kirk
Jacksonville District Commander
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
As I travel throughout south Florida, I hear and appreciate the interest, passion and well-founded concerns of those living and visiting the area have in how water is managed in and around Lake Okeechobee — the liquid heart of the Everglades. As commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District, and as chair of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force Working Group, I have worked alongside and heard directly from hundreds of stakeholders who are affected by and working to address the complex issues surrounding south Florida water management.
One of the primary reasons we release water is to reduce flood risk for people living and working around the lake, in which the potential for inflows far exceeds (six times greater) our capacity for outflows. We have seen many times over the years where we are releasing as much water as we can, yet the lake continues to rise. To guard against the lake stage rising too high, we must take decisive, proactive action in managing the water. This is addressed in the document that guides our decisions, the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).
I’ve been asked why we didn’t release more water during the dry season, which is a fair question. During the first four months of the year, we had little inflow into the lake, and forecasts called for dry conditions to extend into the early part of wet season. Our focus at that point was to retain water to meet supply needs.
That all changed around Mother’s Day. We experienced heavy rains for the second half of the month — enough that our partner agency, the South Florida Water Management District, called it the wettest May on record. We also saw drastically different forecasts, with the National Weather Service communicating increased probabilities of above average precipitation this summer/wet season, and early indications suggesting that El Nino may return during the upcoming dry season — conditions that led to above average precipitation during the dry season of 2015-2016.
We acknowledge that large amounts of freshwater, into estuaries that are supposed to be brackish, aren’t good for the aquatic plant life or wildlife. LORS is informed by our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion. LORS and the Corps’ congressional authorities call for our paramount consideration to be the reduction of flood risk. There is a reason that a book on the 1928 catastrophic Lake Okeechobee floods sits on my desktop.
Stopping discharges at this point, with the lake at its current stages above 14 feet this early in the wet season, increases flood risk. Sending the water south, with the water conservation areas all currently above their desired stages for this time of year, increases flood risk. Sending water to the northern estuaries, as the system is designed to do and as called for by LORS, reduces flood risk.
With considerable federal and state investments, the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the South Florida Water Management District are making improvements that will add flexibility into water management decision-making. As part of Everglades restoration, reservoirs are under construction east and west of the lake that will help.
We are completing construction at the southern end of the system that will help. We are studying potential solutions for projects north and south of the lake, including the state’s proposed southern reservoir, which will help. As we complete the over-$1 billion rehabilitation of Lake Okeechobee’s aged Herbert Hoover Dike, we will re-open the discussion on Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and determine what adjustments can be made regarding the management of water in the lake. The inputs from public stakeholders will be invaluable to this LORS revision process. This season, I assure all stakeholders that I will apply every available flexibility to safely implement LORS and minimize unwanted impacts.
We all want to see better environmental conditions in south Florida, while reducing flood risk. I am proud to serve the citizens of this region in carrying out this challenging endeavor and prouder still to serve alongside the dedicated U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District professionals who work day in and day out to make life better for all in our region.
(Editor’s note: This was first published on June 15, 2018, on www.saj.usace.army.mil.)