STUART — Congressman Brian Mast’s proposal to lower Lake Okeechobee to 8 feet by the end of the dry season to prevent wet season releases to the coastal estuaries was the topic of discussion at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District briefing on Aug. 17 in Stuart City Hall.
Ernie Marks, South Florida Water Management District executive director, said trying to lower the lake to 8 feet would be dangerous for South Florida.
“What are the consequences of lowering the lake below 9 feet by the end of the dry season? We can’t get there with the infrastructure we have in place today. So what do we have to do? We have to send more water west and more water east,” he explained.
“We’ve got to send significant amounts during times you normally don’t receive it, and more frequently,” he said.
The infrastructure needed to send more water south is planned but not yet funded. “We need the additional infrastructure. We need the additional projects so we have the ability to do that,” he said. Such a move would impact the water supply not only south of the lake, but also for the lower east coast, he said.
There is a high level of risk to forcing the lake down to 9 ft., he warned. “There is no guarantee when the rain will fall,” he said.
What happens if the lake is at 8 ft. in May and the rains don’t come when expected? Such a drought would cause the lake to fall to 7 ft. or lower, which would mean SF-
WMD could not send any lake water to any of the users. There would be no water availability for all users, including the environment, he said.
Such a drought would mean long-term impacts to fish and wildlife, he said. The SFWMD would not be able to deliver water to the Seminole Tribal lands. The water shortage would hurt residents and businesses from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys, he said. There would be no water to fight fires. With no backup water supply from the lake, the Everglades would be at high risk of muck fires, which would destroy wildlife habit, he said.
With no flow from the lake, the Caloosahatchee River would no longer be navigable, Mr. Marks said.
In May 2007, during the drought that took the lake below 9 ft., “we had emergency orders to move water 20 miles from an existing reservoir to West Palm Beach. Their normal source of water is rainfall and the backup of Lake Okeechobee.
“Basically underground, you have a freshwater lens and a saltwater lens,” he explained. “The saltwater lens was at risk to move. (In hydrology, a lens is a convex layer of fresh groundwater that floats on top of denser saltwater.) Once that saltwater lens moves too far to the west, you lose your wellfields,” he said.
Mr. Marks said the solution to reducing lake releases to the coastal estuaries lies in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) plans, which were approved but are awaiting federal funding.
Congressman Mast continued to argue to lower the level of the lake during the dry season.
“There are consequences with low water levels,” he said. “But there are consequences with high water levels,” he said.
He said the Army Corps’ top priority is the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. “Every inch of water off Lake Okeechobee means less risk,” he said.