The ACOE’s “Periodic Scientists Call” and the Indian River Lagoon

S-80, Connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie Canal or C-44
S-80  connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St Lucie Canal or C-44 controlled by the ACOE. (Photo JTL)

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell 

I used to think it was the Colonel of the Army Corp of Engineers who single handedly had control to open the gates at S-80 and S-308 to allow the waters  of Lake Okeechobee to flow into the St Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon. (http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/LakeOkeechobee.aspx)

But since February of last year,  I have gotten more insight.

As an elected official, I am allowed to sit in on the Army Corp of Engineers “Periodic Scientists Call” that occurs about once every two weeks.  Last year I was invited to sit in with Martin County and I have attend ever since.

No experience has helped me understand the south Florida water process as much as  consistently sitting in on these calls.

The call is a meeting of the scientific stakeholders to give their input to the ACOE before the Corp makes  its “guidance” for Lake Okeechobee, and usually the following Thursday, after, meeting with the SFWMD,  a “recommendation.”

As you can imagine,  the call is run by the US Army, so it  is very systematic and the language is filled with acronyms and science jargon. For the first six months, I was basically a silent  idiot listening to a foreign language. But slowly I have been catching on.

Thankfully some things are totally predicable. For instance, every call the first thing that is accomplished after reading the rules of the call, is that  the roll call is taken. I like to listen to who is there: ACOE? Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission? City of Sanibel? Ft Meyers? Martin County? St Lucie County? NOAA? Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection?  Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services? SFWMD? Broward County? Highlands County? Osceola County? Tribal Nations? Lee County? Ding Darling? Congressmen and other elected representatives? Members of the public? Other?

Then a leader from the ACOE  gives a short power point presentation that reviews rainfall; precipitation outlooks by the SFWMD and NOAA; Lake Okeechobee inflows and outflows;  operational band standing; SFWMD position analysis; Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS); and then finally a “guidance” for a “decision.”(http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Media/NewsReleases/tabid/6071/Tag/2128/lake-okeechobee-regulation-schedule.aspx)

Next, each stakeholder, one at a time, gives an update on their specialty and makes their case for their interest. Public members are then allowed to speak and and the again the ACOE leader goes through everyone one more time to see if if anyone has  new comments based on the other just shared.

The calls are scientific and unemotional. However, there times of tension and difficulty like last year when the ACOE began releasing to the St Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee on May 8th and continued steadily, then intensely, through September 21, 2013. This tension may start up again soon, as the lake is higher than they wish for this time of year and it has been a wet winter. The “decision” should become public today.

I have to say that after sitting in on all these calls, the Army Corp often holds back when the LORS chart, and maybe even the SFWMD, says to “release.” But in the end, the inevitable occurs.

Although I appreciative of the hard working men and women who run the ACOE, I do think the overall system fails to take into account the long term survival needs of the natural system which includes “us,” and favors the security of resources of the sugar industry and agriculture south of the lake.  It is easy to fall back on  “flood control” each time the lake rises, and dump east and west, but the system is more far reaching and has greater demands than just that. The water they are dumping, 1.7 billion gallons on average a day, is simply wasted due to an outdated system. (FOS, Mark Perry)

On a deeper level, the intertwined culture of the SFWMD, the ACOE and agriculture, especially the sugar industry, is one going back over 100  years. Their connection runs deep and is a cultural one, one that has allowed them to control water and politics for their own interests in South  Florida, past and present.

But times change and world views evolve. Personally, I am pushing for a future  a little less Orwellian, and a little more respectful, of our natural resources and Mother Nature.

4 thoughts on “The ACOE’s “Periodic Scientists Call” and the Indian River Lagoon

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