Managing Lake Okeechobee Water Levels

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a joint guest editorial by Celeste De Palma, Director of Everglades Policy, Audubon Florida; Mark Perry, Executive Director, Florida Oceanographic Society; and Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Policy Director, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation

Lake Okeechobee from space. (World Atlas photo)

Evaluations are currently underway to update the management of Lake Okeechobee water levels to improve the delivery and timing of water out of the Lake to better serve the needs of the greater Everglades. The current management schedule dramatically improved conditions from the previous schedules that held Lake levels so high for so long it devastated the Lake, drowning the marsh that provides habitat for fish and invertebrates, filters water and secures sediments. There are interests who want to retrograde management back to operating the Lake as a reservoir instead of a living system. We must not move backward and risk our investments in restoration; there is too much at stake.

Science and data must guide the reevaluation of water management. We must use the science and extensive data, collected over decades, to evaluate the pros and cons of alternative operational strategies and their impacts on all features of the system.

Models and scenarios can be useful tools but are only as good as the assumptions they run on. Monitored data is the most reliable source of information of ecosystem response over time. Extensive data show the effects of deeper water on the ecology of the Lake and estuaries. Consistent high water levels ravage the Lake’s network of marshes- the Lake’s natural water filtration system.

A deep Lake is not a good thing for the Lake, Everglades, the estuaries, the coastal communities damaged by discharges or the lakeside communities who would be overwhelmed by a Hoover Dike failure. As we have seen this past year there are real benefits gained from operational flexibility that allows the Lake to be managed to lower levels for restoration of Lake habitat and water quality.

The status quo is not sustainable; a new schedule is needed. Current operations still keep Lake Okeechobee too deep, too often. Deep water levels in Lake Okeechobee damages the Lake, the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie estuaries and the Everglades. Thanks to the leadership of Congressman Mast and Governor DeSantis, we are finally focused on managing water to benefit the natural resources we are restoring that support our communities, our wildlife and the entire greater Everglades ecosystem.

Operational flexibility is key. The threat from toxic discharges must force today’s water management decisions to consider real-time impacts to the entire ecosystem to protect human health, community economies and the ecology of the greater Everglades. Collectively, our organizations, municipalities, business owners, advocates and elected leaders like Congressman Mast and Governor DeSantis have urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage the Lake to not cause harm to the ecosystem and communities. The past year the Corps has done exactly that; helping to reduce harm from both high and low lake levels. Restoration has brought us into the 21st century and we must adapt our water management to reflect the lessons learned.

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