SFWMD orders independent scientific review of lake

WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board wants science to determine any changes to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).

At their Jan. 10 meeting in West Palm Beach, the board authorized entering into a contract with the University of Florida Board of Trustees for an independent scientific review to inform development of the new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) at a total cost not to exceed $306,303, for which funds are budgeted.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be out with Paul Gray of Audubon on the lake,” said SFWMD Governing Board member Brandon Tucker. “I’ve had the opportunity to be out with Scott Martin on the lake last week.

“The liquid heart of the Everglades is Lake Okeechobee. The health of the Everglades is the health of Lake Okeechobee. We want a healthy heart. “As we go through this discussion on LORS, we must make sure we protect Lake Okeechobee at all costs,” he said.

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
According to the Florida Audubon Society’s Okeechobee Science Coordinator Dr. Paul Gray, the lower lake level will boost much- needed vegetation in the lake.

“I am extremely supportive of the district’s efforts to bring in an independent science review before we open up the LORS review,” said Governing Board member Jaime Weisinger. “I think that people tend to keep their own interests in mind and arbitrarily pick winners and losers when deciding these things,” he said.

“I look forward to using the science to decide what is best for the system.”

Chairman Federico Fernandez said the stakeholders in his “neck of the woods” in Miami-Dade County are concerned about a variety of issues including water quality and sea level rise. He said the “liquid heart” of the Everglades system, Lake Okeechobee, serves a variety of needs. “I hope a lot the people who live on the east and west coasts also view it that way,” Mr. Fernandez added. “We can find ways to find a quicker solution than we have seen over the past few years,” said John Hinshaw during the public comment period.

Traditionally, discussions about LORS have focused on water supply and flood control, he said. The health issues and economic issues for the coastal estuaries should also be considered, Mr. Hinshaw said.Moving clean water south is definitely needed, he added. “We all are asking a lot from a flood control system, a water supply system, a natural system,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

“We know it is going to be an intense discussion. There will be people who sit on one side of the ecosystem who need something from it that is at direct odds with somebody who sits in a different location.

“It’s really important that we move forward and let science guide the way,” Ms. Pipes said. “We talk around Lake Okeechobee. “We talk about Lake Okeechobee as if it’s a bad thing, as if it’s this horrible, awful place. “That lake is also a huge part of this ecosystem,” she continued. “That heart is often forgotten in these conversations,” Ms. Pipes said.

“Going too high or too low is important from an ecological health standpoint,” she said. “Let’s not forget about the lake as we fight all around it.”

“I support this study,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida.

He said a lot of work went into the current LORS before it was finalized in 2008.

“We quickly found out right away that the lake over 15.5 feet is bad for the lake, terrible for the lake, horrible for the lake,” he said. “We’re down to about 20 percent of our vegetation now because of Irma and too high a lake for too long.

“We also know it’s extremely important that the lake go to 10 feet every few years, mostly that happens when there is a drought. Mr. Cook said extreme low lake levels during a drought renews the vegetation around the edges of the lake and settles the colloidal suspension. “The health of the lake is the most important part of the entire system, from Orlando to the Keys,” he said. “If the lake is not healthy, the system will never be healthy,” he said. “That is what we need to keep our eye on.”

Reach Katrina Elsken at kelsken@newszap.com

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