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Fight Brewing Over How High To Keep Lake O

A boat motors through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle in 2018.
Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Updated May 7 at 12:30 p.m.

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gathers public input on how to operate Lake Okeechobee once it finishes $1.8 billion in repairs to its aging dike, an old fight has resurfaced: how high to keep water levels.

It’s a question that has long dogged the naturally shallow lake deepened after flood control and now a source of water for South Florida.

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The Corps has been holding public meetings on changing lake operations since 2019, timing the completion of the plan with the dike repairs expected to wrap up in 2022. Last month, it recommended setting lake levels slightly lower than current operations, keeping the levels at about 12 feet in the wet season to maintain water supplies and 15 feet in the dry season.

But in recent weeks, there’s been a push to keep water levels higher.

An email sent out by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ staff to members of Congress, and provided to WLRN, asks them to support inserting an old higher-lake baseline, along with a ‘savings clause’ created to protect water users during Everglades restoration — in its 2020 waterworks bill. The legislation is typically passed every two years to authorize major infrastructure nationwide.

Higher levels favor farmers and utilities who draw water from the lake.

But environmentalists and coastal communities battling repeated algae blooms triggered by the lake’s polluted water say keeping the lake higher could be dangerous to communities and the environment.

“The Corps is conducting an open and transparent process to update the lake operation schedule. They’re taking water supply into consideration for the natural environment and other users,” said Doug Gaston, an Everglades policy analyst for Audubon Florida. “So this is politics. It's not science.”

Hastings' office did not initially respond to requests for comment. After this story aired, Hastings' office provided a statement saying he represents utilities, farmers and other industries who disagree with the Corps.

He said he also believes changing lake levels connected to the dike repairs should follow the same rules as Everglades restoration.

The Corps also says the measure should not be included in the plan. It’s partly for bureaucratic reasons: the clause was developed for restoration, as a way to ensure water users don’t get shorted. This plan is not a restoration project but rather part of the dike rehabilitation.

But it’s also because of the status of  reservoirs being constructed east and west of the lake needed to hold excess water and not yet complete, said spokesman John Campbell.

“When [the Everglades restoration plan] passed in 2000, it envisioned storage and also a Lake Okeechobee schedule update. But it envisioned a lot more features than we have in 2020,” he said.

Water in the lake was lowered after Hurricane Katrina broke levees in New Orleans in 2005, killing at least 1,800, and exposed the frailty of the nation’s aging networks of dams and levees. The 1930s-era dike around Lake Okeechobee made the Corps' shortlist of most troubled dams.

While it was being fixed, a new plan advised keeping water levels at about 15.5 feet in the wet season to protect the dam and above about 12.5 in the dry season to meet water needs.

But in the years since, repeated discharges to maintain lake levels have triggered toxic algae blooms, angering coastal residents. Just after he was elected, Gov. Ron DeSantis — who won a political endorsement from the Everglades Trust —  asked the Corps to lower levels another two feet.

Coastal residents have also been urged to weigh in on the Corps ongoing review. In March, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane warned residents that with no restoration projects expected to be finished in time to provide relief, addressing lake levels offered the only solution.

“The scientists with evidence and years and years of experience with the lake are recommending a lake schedule of 12 to 15 [feet] as the optimum operating range,” Gaston said. “We think that's right from a science point of view and we would like to see the Corps be able to continue down this path.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.