Lake Okeechobee used to provide clean freshwater each year to the Everglades. That water, which is the Everglades' lifeblood, was cut off to accommodate agriculture and development in the 1940s. Disconnecting the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee has led to widespread environmental harm and water shortages both of which hurt South Florida’s 21st century economy based on tourism and recreation.
Today, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is responsible for managing when and where the lake’s water goes. Historically, the lake has been managed for the benefit of a few special interests while our environment and economy suffer. We now have an opportunity to implement a more equitable management of resources for all communities.
WHAT IS LOSOM?
The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), is the first attempt in over a decade to revise how Lake Okeechobee’s water is managed. It is an opportunity for the Corps to positively impact our region by providing more of the freshwater desperately needed by both the Everglades and South Florida’s growing communities.
With construction soon to be complete on the reinforcement of the Herbert Hoover Dike at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee, the lake will be able to hold more water safely. The Corps is now prepared to capitalize on the strengthened infrastructure to better meet South Florida’s water needs. LOSOM will determine how much water is released from Lake Okeechobee, when it will be sent, and where it will go.
HOW DOES LOSOM AFFECT ME?
LOSOM will impact the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, Lake Worth Lagoon, the southern Everglades and Florida Bay. It will also have a profound impact on life in South Florida, where a reliable supply of freshwater for 5 million residents depends on Lake Okeechobee sending water through the Everglades to hydrate the Biscayne Aquifer.
For decades, Lake Okeechobee water levels were maintained primarily to serve the sugar industry in the Everglades Agricultural Area, at the expense of all other users. The improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike and revisions to LOSOM offer the prospect of a more balanced approach.
This new water schedule will impact different regions in various ways:
Coastal Communities along the Treasure and Gulf Coasts:
High water levels in Lake Okeechobee damage underwater vegetation, harming wildlife, and giving rise to blue-green algae blooms that can be toxic to wildlife, pets, and humans. When water levels get too high, they jeopardize the Herbert Hoover Dike, forcing the Corps to discharge excess water east through the St. Lucie and west through the Caloosahatchee River. These discharges have caused frequent algae blooms that have restricted fishing, closed beaches, and wreaked havoc on local economies.
The Everglades and Florida Bay:
Since being cut off from Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and Florida Bay rely on rainwater and agricultural run-off for its freshwater. In the dry season, the Everglades and Florida Bay suffer due to the lack of available freshwater to properly hydrate the ecosystem. However, the farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area get continuous access to Lake Okeechobee’s water to keep the sugarcane fields green. The result is that billions of gallons of water saturate sugarcane fields while the Everglades faces drought-like conditions which cause destructive wildfires. Similarly, Florida Bay is parched for freshwater and it suffers from hypersaline conditions that kill its world-class fisheries.
Broward and Miami-Dade Counties:
The fast-growing communities in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties depend on water from Lake Okeechobee to hydrate the Everglades and recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, which is the source of drinking water for the region’s residents and tourists. LOS
Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA):
Since the lake can hold a significant amount of water, the agriculture industry, especially sugar growers, want the water level to be established as high as possible. This serves the industry well, especially during the dry periods, when they use the lake as their backup reservoir. The farmers in the EAA have never been cut off from Lake Okeechobee’s water.
WHAT OPTIONS ARE THE CORPS CONSIDERING FOR LOSOM?
The LOSOM process has been underway for over two years. At present, the Corps has reduced its plan options down to six, but only one, “Plan CC,” comes close to being balanced for the entire system. Even Plan CC, however, needs improvement to send more clean water south during the dry season, when the Everglades and Florida Bay need it most.
Restoring the historic freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades concerns us all because our water supply, economy, and the health of our River of Grass is at stake. Everglades restoration involves long-term infrastructure projects to store, clean, and move water as nature once intended, but it also depends on policy and management decisions. The Everglades Foundation will continue to work to ensure the Corps seizes this moment to get us closer to sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
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