Lake Okeechobee, viewed by satellite.

Lake Okeechobee, viewed by satellite. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to publish its recommended regulation plan for Lake Okeechobee this week, but announced late last week it would not have the 10-year proposal ready before Nov. 16.

The delay is praised by those who don’t like the plan and criticized by those who do, a schism defined by geography – east v. west, north v. south – instead of partisan politics.

After years of debate over where Lake Okeechobee discharges should flow, the Corps in July selected one of five proposals, Balanced Alternate Plan CC, to encode into its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) for the 730-square-mile impoundment.

LOSOM was to be finalized in October and implemented by late 2022 after $2 billion in repairs to Herbert Hoover Dike are done and when the $1.3 billion, 240,000-acre-foot EAA reservoir is completed in 2027.

Generally, communities east of Lake Okeechobee are pleased because the plan reduces discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary and increases flows south into the Everglades by 52% during the dry season – tactics designed to stymie blue algae outbreaks that befouled the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers in 2019.

Generally, communities west of the lake say the new plan does not ensure water supplies for agriculture and for more than 7 million Floridians and increases discharges into the Caloosahatchee.

During a meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., with Florida’s congressional delegation organized by U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Sunrise, Corps Jacksonville District Commander Col. James Booth said after an Oct. 26 hearing, the agency had “much more feedback” than anticipated.

“It became clear we needed more time to look at that and adequately consider that information,” Booth said.

Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, broke ranks with most “east side” reps – U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Stuart, is among Plan CC’s biggest boosters – by calling for further delays.

“We’re happy about the delay. But we don’t understand why it was only a two-week delay and not enough time to take into the concerns of many of the other stakeholders who feel they have not had enough time to review the modeling information,” said Frankel, a former West Palm Beach Mayor who represents much of central and south Palm Beach County.

There is “both a quality and quantity issue in terms of what’s coming out of Lake Okeechobee” and into her district, she said, adding the plan “does not take into account what would happen to Grassy Waters,” a chief water supply source “not properly considered in the LOSOM process.”

Meanwhile, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said the delay offers opportunities for “other forces to take us away from a positive result.”

Time is the essence in implementing a plan debated for a quarter-century, he said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.

“In our view, this is the last decade to get to restoration,” he said. “Then we pivot to perpetual protection. We know there are forces out there that are really going to slow you down. They’re going to ensure there’s foot-dragging on whatever progress is being made.”

Eikenberg said while LOSOM offers different impacts and benefits for those north, south, east and west of the lake, “the tension is unfortunate” because, overall, a great milestone is set to be achieved.

“I understand each community has their own concerns, but you also have to realize Monroe County, Miami-Dade County, Broward County, they’re also looking at this for their own benefit. And they’re the beneficiary of this,” he told Florida Politics. “The hope here is that the east and west can come together to realize they don’t need the water, they don’t want the water.”

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