FILE - U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., on the Capitol steps

(The Center Square) – After years of debate over where Lake Okeechobee discharges should flow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has selected a plan favored by environmentalists over one proposed by agricultural interests.

The Corps Monday announced it had selected Balanced Alternate Plan CC, one of five it reviewed, which calls for tripling discharges south into the Everglades, decreasing discharges east into the St. Lucie River and redefines Lake Worth as an estuary, not a flood-control waterway.

The Corps proposes to encode Plan CC into its 10-year Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), an update of its 2008 Lake O water management plan.

The LOSOM will be finalized in October and implemented by late 2022 after $2 billion in repairs to Herbert Hoover Dike are done. It will be in place as construction of the $1.3 billion, 240,000-acre-foot EAA reservoir is completed in 2027.

The plan reduces harmful discharges to the St. Lucie Estuary from Lake Okeechobee and increases flows 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 and are surfacing again this year.

Florida U.S. Reps. Brian Mast, R-Stuart, and Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who represent districts east and west of the 730-square-mile impoundment, supported Plan CC.

“Today is the outcome we’ve been working towards for years, but it’s far from a checkered flag, and we can’t let our foot off the gas,” Mast said in a statement. “Optimization can’t be used as code for ‘bait and switch.’ The east coast has made compromise after compromise, and we will not accept more discharges that harm our communities while we receive no benefits.”

Plan CC was largely supported by environmental groups, including the Everglades Foundation, Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Oceanographic Society and the Indian River Keeper, who praised the decision but cautioned more needs to be done.

“Although this plan still needs to be optimized to deliver more water south to the Everglades during the dry season, alternative CC is the ideal starting point to a more balanced and fair management of the public’s water,” Everglades Foundation Chief Science Officer Steve Davis said.

Corps’ Jacksonville District Commander Col. Andrew Kelly said the plan will modified.

“This was an important decision cap-stoning two-plus years of work to get to this point,” Kelly told about 300 people logged online Monday to hear the announcement. “We have to figure out how to guide-rail the optimization so we can get the best we can out of the plan.”

Proponents raised concerns that Plan CC allows water to be held at higher levels longer, and the Caloosahatchee River could see harmful discharges increase. Utilities, EAA farmers and water supply users, including the city of West Palm Beach, have raised assorted issues with the plan.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, nor state Agriculture Commissioner Nike Fried, a Democratic opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial race, have expressed a preference.

Plan CC “would be most aligned” with the governor’s priorities, DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said. “Under Plan CC, water flowing south to the Everglades would more than double during the dry season and more than triple on an annual basis. Further, optimization is expected in the LOSOM process.”

Fried has not endorsed a plan but requested technical analyses of them all.

Balanced Plan BB comes closest to meeting water supply requirements, argued proponents, including U.S. Sugar, the nation’s largest producer of domestic sugar cane, which farms 230,000 acres surrounding the lake.

In a Monday statement, US Sugar said farmers around Lake Okeechobee believe Plan CC “falls short and must be ‘optimized’ in order to meet its legally authorized purposes.”