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Guest Commentary | U.S. Army Corps walks side-by-side with Florida through challenges from Lake Okeechobee releases

By BRIG. GEN. DANIEL HIBNER - Commander, South Atlantic Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers | Mar 21, 2024

Brig. Gen. Daniel H. Hibner

As the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers works through the effects of a strong El Niño climate pattern throughout the south Florida area, we want our partners and stakeholders to know that we are here, and we are listening. As we strive to balance equally important interests, we continue to encourage our partners and stakeholders to make their voices heard.

We began releases from Lake Okeechobee on Feb. 17 when seasonal conditions are normally dry and water levels are expected to recede. These lake releases helped start the normal winter/springtime recession on the lake. Water levels must continue to come down before the beginning of both the wet season and the Atlantic hurricane season, good for both the ecology of the Lake and the safety of the citizens in the communities around the lake. Lower lake water levels provide flood risk management as well as decrease the probability of large releases occurring during the summer, which is also the peak of algal bloom season.

We understand the current lake releases are stressful for the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries and adjacent communities. We know from our consistent engagement with stakeholders that water quality remains one of your significant concerns. As such, it is also one of the principal considerations integrated into our decision-making as we strive to balance the multiple project purposes for Lake Okeechobee water management.

We understand the impact water clarity has on recreation and tourism. Looking towards the summer and peak algal bloom months, we are committed to doing everything within our authorities to help the State of Florida manage its water quality challenges. When possible, we will avoid releases when the risk of blue green algal blooms is high, to mitigate potential health concerns.

While we cannot control Mother Nature, we continue to be focused on moving water through this interconnected system in the most beneficial way practical including delivering a record amount of water from Water Conservation Area (WCA) 3-A to Everglades National Park (ENP) in the past year.

We thank our partners in the State of Florida for working with us to advance and invest in long-term solutions with ecosystem restoration projects that are underway to restore the Everglades and limit releases into Florida’s other estuaries.

This year alone, we anticipate awarding $3.1 billion in new construction contracts to keep these Everglades restoration projects moving forward and to ensure they are operational as soon as possible, providing additional water storage and increased water flows where needed for restoration, and reduce damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

We will continue to seek public participation and feedback to our operations and future plans, and we will continue to do our best to balance the project purposes of Lake Okeechobee under the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and the future Lake Okeechobee Systems Operations Manual (LOSOM).

That is our mission, and we will continue to execute it, walking side-by-side with our stakeholders and partners in Florida.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Hibner, Commander, South Atlantic Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers