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Our Town with William Kelly: Water board favors plan to decrease damaging discharges into estuaries

Water managers embraced on Thursday a plan to significantly reduce harmful flows of Lake Okeechobee water into coastal estuaries, including the Lake Worth Lagoon.

The South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board members strongly signaled their support for a plan to discharge more water from the lake south toward the Everglades during the dry season months when it is needed most. The polluted lake water would be cleansed in storage treatment areas before reaching the Everglades.

The board agreed the new approach would be far superior to the existing water release plan, which has been sharply criticized for causing harmful algal blooms in rivers, canals and estuaries.

“This is better all the way around, except it does not help the lake,” board Chairman Chauncey Goss said. “We have incredibly smart people working on it.”

Board member Cheryl Meads said the water district has many interests to balance but reducing toxic discharges into estuaries should be its top priority.

“I believe public health and safety is more important than anything else,” she said.

The plan favored by the board is referred to as a modified or optimized version of “alternative CC.” It is one of six water management options being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages water levels in Lake Okeechobee. The Corps updates its water plan, called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, every 10 years.

The water district also recommended that, in the future, the Army Corps recognize the Lake Worth Lagoon as an estuary and not simply as a water discharge destination for flood control. It recommended that no discharges be sent into the St. Lucie River during the summer months, when conditions are most favorable for algal blooms.

That was welcome news to environmentalists, local government officials and residents concerned about toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae blooms, that have been more frequent in coastal waters in recent years.

Jay Boodheshwar, deputy town manager for Palm Beach, presented the water district with a resolution, unanimously adopted by the Town Council on Tuesday, in favor of modified alternative “CC.”

Boodheshwar said the town believes “CC” is the best path toward improving water quality and protecting the environment.

“It will increase beneficial water flows to the Everglades and limit harmful discharges into the coastal estuaries,” he said.

The algal blooms are caused by discharges of Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, which carry the lake water to the state’s east and west coasts. The lake has been polluted for decades by stormwater runoff containing over-rich nutrients from fertilizers and septic tank leakage.

Although the water district board did not vote on a recommendation to the Army Corps, there appeared to be a clear consensus among its members, and the public, in favor of a modified version of alternative “CC.”

The Army Corps manages Lake Okeechobee water levels chiefly for the purposes of preventing flooding and maintaining a regional water supply in South Florida, with its growing population of nine million people.

After two years of study, the Corps accepted public comment this summer as it nears completion of its LOSOM review. “It’s been fantastic, hearing from the stakeholders,” said Colonel Andrew Kelly, commander and district engineer of the Corps’ Jacksonville District.

The Corps will announce the new water release plan today, Kelly said. Kelly said he will then return to South Florida to “engage with stakeholders” about its decision.

After the plan is formally approved on Aug. 4, the Corps will focus on “optimization” and developing operational details, a process that should be complete in October.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “We’ve still got to put the meat on the bone. Nouns and verbs matter.”

The plan would be put into operation next year, he said.

The rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile earthen wall around the lake, is nearing completion and will provide greater resiliency against flooding, Kelly said.

But none of the LOSOM alternatives is perfect; all call for continuing to discharge the lake water for flood control when the lake level reaches around 16 feet deep. Water levels in the 730-square mile lake can fluctuate by 3 feet to 5 feet a year.

Although “CC” would decrease lake flows into the Caloosahatchee River compared to existing guidelines, the Caloosahatchee would bear more of the discharges than the St. Lucie would under the plan.

Board member Ron Bergeron Sr. said that, ultimately, the goal is to send all lake discharges south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. But that requires more infrastructure to hold water north and south of the lake.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan [CERP], begun in 2000, is still years from completion, officials said. Digging begins in October on the 10,500-acre EAA reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. It is one of 68 components of the restoration plan.

With a price tag of $10.5 billion, and a timeline of more than three decades, CERP is the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

“CERP is the key to us not having these discussions in the future,” board member Charlette Roman said. “We want CERP to move faster.”

Until then, water managers are trying, through LOSOM, to balance many interests that include flood protection, a safe drinking water supply, environmental protection, recreation and ecotourism, and sufficient irrigation for South Florida’s huge agricultural industry.

“There is a lot of angst out there,” board Vice Chairman Scott Wagner said. “This is super important to people.”