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Lake Okeechobee plans said to include tribe’s concerns

The good, the bad, and the ugly concerning Lake Okeechobee has gotten a renewed focus over the past few years by the many entities that have a stake in it, including those directly responsible for its management – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, is a new plan that has been in work since 2018. It is still being tweaked so that, ideally, lake conditions are improved, discharges are controlled and the interests of the Seminole Tribe are addressed. The plan is expected to go into effect in late 2022 and will guide the Corps’ decision-making for at least a decade. Corps officials presented a LOSOM update at an Aug. 9 media briefing.

The tribe’s interests are similar to others and include ensuring that water levels are high enough that current and future agricultural needs on the Big Cypress and Brighton reservations are met. The tribe has also long been concerned about proposed plans for massive water storage facilities that encroach on tribal lands and stoke flooding concerns. The tribe has also sought to be treated as a sovereign entity when it comes to water allocations. During the briefing, the Corps’ Florida commander, Col. Andrew Kelly, stated that LOSOM’s goals did recognize the tribe as a separate and distinct water supply user.

The Corps is faced with a juggling act to ensure LOSOM meets a variety of needs, from sending water south to areas of the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, maintaining enough water in the case of drought conditions, and protecting estuaries from lake discharges that can set off toxic blue-green algae blooms.

The Army Corps have said a new plan for Lake Okeechobee will include the interests of the Seminole Tribe. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Dozens of constituents representing counties, cities, utilities, farmers and chambers of commerce recently wrote to Gov. Ron DeSantis to express concerns that the federal government was attempting to “usurp” Florida’s water rights by reducing Lake Okeechobee water levels. Officials in Glades County, which includes the Brighton Reservation, and Hendry County, which includes the Big Cypress Reservation, were among those concerned that water allocations promised by the state would not come to fruition under the proposed LOSOM plan.

The tribe sent a July letter to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) with concerns that if the lake gets too low it wouldn’t be able to distribute water to the Brighton and Big Cypress reservations. The tribe did not challenge a reduction in water in 2008 because it had been assured the allocations were temporary and would be restored when dike repairs were complete. More than 12 years later, the proposed LOSOM plan is less allocation than what the tribe was getting before 2008. The tribe said in the letter that it doubts modifications would be enough to close the gap. The Corps based the new manual on the 2008 plan instead of allocations prior to that time.

The Corps said it would release more details about LOSOM’s progress in September. It must also get approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will allow for additional public comment beginning in early 2022.

Kissimmee River restoration

Meanwhile, the Corps and the SFWMD celebrated a success July 29 with a ceremony that marked the completion of the Kissimmee River restoration project. The project restored more than 40 square miles of the river floodplain ecosystem, 20,000 acres of wetlands and 44 miles of the historic river channel, according to the Corps.

The south-central Florida river forms the north part of the Everglades wetlands area and runs from south of Orlando through Lake Kissimmee into Lake Okeechobee.

The restoration effort began in 1999 and was a partnership between the Corps and the SFWMD. It included backfilling 22-miles of canal; the reconstruction of remnant river channels; the removal of two water control structures; the addition of two gates; and the acquisition of more than 100,000 acres of land to restore the river and floodplain. The Corps said the effort also resulted in a recovery of the invertebrate community, a crucial food source for fish and birds.

The Corps said additional monitoring will be conducted to measure the project’s success, and that other projects and restoration efforts in the region will support the river’s continued restoration.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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