Army Corps to release LOSOM update as stakeholder concerns remain

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to release a new update this week on the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), as some stakeholders are still pressing for changes to the document that will govern Lake O releases for the next several years.

The new operating manual will dictate where Lake O’s water resources head and when, leading to predictable battles over the manual’s language.

Lawmakers and community stakeholders have voiced their concerns as the LOSOM language has continued to take shape. With a new update expected Friday, some are still concerned about the Corps’ direction, though that updated language could very well address some of those concerns.

Col. James Booth, Commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, spoke last week as part of a panel at the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Water Permitting School, At the meeting, held in Marco Island, Booth touched on the plan during his talks.

“We, over the last few months, have been working on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), and also the water control plan,” Booth told attendees

“We’ve sent out some versions of that. We’re kind of buffing that up, and then we’ll be putting that out for its public state agency review on the 29th of July.”

Expect plenty of feedback to come once that new language hits.

Ernie Barnett, Executive Director of Florida Lands Council, also spoke at last week’s Marco Island event and expressed concerns over the current direction of the Army Corps’ plan. His two overarching concerns were a lack of specifics in the plan and a concern that the Corps will have too much authority over water flow, which could lead to decisions the state may not agree with.

“Who’s really in charge of water supply?” Barnett asked. “Shouldn’t it be the state of Florida?”

Barnett said he understands the Corps needs to discharge water when Lake O’s water levels get too high and make adjustments when the lake is on the lower end. But he said the most recently released draft gives the Corps too much authority.

“I believe they are impinging upon the rights of existing legal users,” Barnett contended.

Barnett, however, left room that Friday’s update could resolve some of those issues.

“That’s what was in the last draft. And we’re hopeful they’ve made efforts to address these concerns that have been raised.”

But as it stands, Barnett is concerned that the existing language could impede the state’s ability to stave off drought during a dryer period.

“Droughts are much harder to manage, from a water use perspective and a water management perspective, than even flooding events because they persist for long periods of time and so many people can be so adversely affected by it,” Barnett said.

“The best way to manage a crisis is to keep from going into a crisis. And if you’re only allowed to make decisions about how to deal with water shortages after you’re already in a water storage, then you don’t have the ability to avoid that crisis.”

That’s an issue that U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel raised during the LOSOM development process. Frankel, the former West Palm Beach Mayor, governed the city during a drought.

“The city of West Palm Beach is very concerned that Grassy Waters (Preserve), which is the drinking water for West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County, was not properly considered in the LOSOM process,” Frankel told Booth at a November meeting in Washington.

“I was Mayor of the city during a drought. We came within days of having no water whatsoever. And the city relies on water from Lake Okeechobee — that is, quality water for Lake Okeechobee — in order for us to actually live.”

Barnett made clear he doesn’t think the Corps would ignore drought conditions purposefully, but pointed out that the Corps’ priorities could simply differ from those of the state.

“I don’t think the Corps would make those decisions on purpose. But they don’t have a statutory or legal obligation to make sure that individual water supply permits — to residential use, public water supply, other beneficial uses — that those permits are met,” Barnett said.

“The water management district has a legal responsibility to make sure that water is there and available. And that’s why we think that the one with the responsibility to protect the water supply should be the one making the decisions on where the water goes as you approach a water shortage.”

Last week’s panel meeting in Marco Island featured several other notable interested parties discussing Florida’s Water issues. The panel included Drew Bartlett, Executive Director of the South Florida Water Management District; Adam Blalock, Deputy Secretary of ecosystems restorations at Department of Environmental Protection; Larry Williams, Florida state supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Steve Walker, founding member of Lewis, Longman & Walker; and Anna Upton, CEO of Everglades Trust.

That gives some feeling for the number of eyes on Friday’s release. For his part, Booth argued the Corps has taken time to process information and make sure it’s reflected in the new documents.

“We pumped the brakes for about three months to make sure that those documents were clear, accurately represented what was modeled and we’re ready to roll that out and looking forward to it,” Booth said.

But the ever-contentious battle over the state’s water supply has led to pushback from different sides as the Corps has worked to fine-tune LOSOM.

Late last year, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube argued too much water will be flowing into the Caloosahatchee River under the new plan.

“I understand the Army Corps’ desire to find a compromise with stakeholders, but the selected model still falls short of what is best for lake ecology, the lake communities, and agriculture,” Steube told Florida Politics.

“Discharges from the lake should be spread equitably, and the Corps should not be picking regional winners and losers when determining water flow. We need to find a solution that does not keep the lake level too high for too long, does not have maximum outflows when the lake reaches a certain level and makes sure the water supply is protected when the lake is low.”

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, who represents the southeast coast of Florida saw “good and bad” in the plan.

“The good news is that under the proposed plan more water can flow south into the Everglades while less water will likely flow east and west during the summer months when the risk of algal blooms is highest. This is an improvement on the very bad status quo,” Mast said in a written statement.

“At the same time, though, this plan falls far short of truly rebalancing the scales of justice when it comes to water management in Florida. Critics will say that that level of progress is impossible until more infrastructure is built, but that’s bulls**t.”

But Barnett pushed back against the “send water south” framing during his talk in Marco Island.

“My one plea — to the Corps, to the district, to anyone — we’ve got to stop saying that sending the water south is the solution,” Barnett said.

“Sending water south is a tool, a strategy, that you might use at times. It’s not the end game. It’s not the objective.”

He also argued farmers have a vested interest in protecting the environment they rely on.

“Farmers are good stewards. Farmers care about the water. And farmers want to support government’s actions to support this ecosystem,” Barnett said.

“I think there’s some perception out there that in order to restore the Everglades, you have to take water away from the water supply. In order to meet water supply, conversely, you’re not going to be able to restore the Everglades. And I think that is, categorically, a misconception. There are ways to manage Lake Okeechobee that are beneficial to the Everglades, beneficial to protecting the coastal estuaries, but respecting and meeting the water rights of existing legal users. You can do all three with the right schedule. And that’s where we think that this plan hopefully will be refined.”

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