The water quality issue surrounding Lake Okeechobee and its connecting rivers is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle: There are numerous pieces that must be placed in a certain order for the big picture to properly come together.

Last Tuesday, at City Hall in Cape Coral, U.S. Rep Byron Donalds and a gathered panel spoke to local leaders and concerned citizens at a Congressional Water Roundtable, where attendees were told that Southwest Florida is only one in a large handful of areas feeling the impacts of a flawed system.

However, they also were presented with what panel members said was some good news on the horizon in that the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, will allow for flexibility regarding water releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and into the Everglades to the south.

Donalds, who represents District 19, was joined by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Andrew Kelly, South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss and U.S. Department of Interior, Director of Office of Everglades Restoration Initiatives Adam Gelber.

All of them agreed that the ecology of Lake Okeechobee, whose waters are heavy with polluting nutrients, is bad and needs to be bettered, but water releases from the lake are not the only reason there is blue-green algae in local waters.

“When water goes down the river it impacts everyone. Blooms are not because of the lake. We have runoff issues in the water. The reservoir will help us manage waterflow,” Donalds said of infrastructure improvements to come.

Donalds said he cannot remember a time when all elected officials on both sides of the aisle have been on the same page on one topic. He praised Gov. Ron DeSantis, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden for the work they have done on the Everglades Restoration Project by supporting funding for the dozens of projects that need to be done in the coming years.

“I’m hopeful in the fact we’re having this conversation. We haven’t had many of these over the years and now we have so much momentum,” Goss said. “We can’t go back to the status quo.”

“Elected officials have spoken to ACE about, during stressful times, that the lake is managed in a way that Southwest Florida isn’t taking the brunt of it,” Donalds said. “There’s water we’re going to have to take, we just want to limit those harmful releases.”

Kelly said the original LOSOM plan did not do enough to help those along the Caloosahatchee and could have had devastating consequences to them. He said the new plan now undergoing “optimization” calls for flexibility and the timing the releases for when they are needed.

Donalds said the meeting went well, with people in Cape Coral wanting meaningful answers as blue-green algae blooms are again is being seen in the river and other local water bodies.

“They want real action regarding water releases. We don’t want to take water releases at all, but what we learned were the technical aspects of what’s happening with the new plan and the flexibility built into that plan,” Donalds said.

Kelly said it was great to engage the public with a panel that looked at things from different perspectives.

“It was an opportunity to get good feedback and inform folks about what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “The feeling right now is that the current plan has too much stress on the Caloosahatchee and I was trying to explain how we’re going to get after reducing some of that stress and it may or may not include additional releases east.”

Reaction was mixed.

Local activist Jason Pim said that while it was nice to hear from elected officials, there are many water issues not influenced by the lake that need to be addressed.

“We can’t seem to get to that point where we can talk about the local water pollution issues,” Pim said. “We have many water bodies to restore and we can’t seem to get to the point where we can remove legacy pollution.”

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said he was encouraged the Corps, which is, among other things, vested with managing water levels within the lake to prevent a breach in the dike with surrounds it, was hearing their message about Caloosahatchee releases.

“This isn’t just our environment, it’s our economy. We don’t want hospitality workers standing in food lines because they got laid off,” Hamman said. “Every community on the river and lake are affected and they all have a different concern than us. We’re all competing for the best plan for our regions, but we share this space and we’re going to have to make some tradeoffs to come up with a plan that has balance.”

The city of Cape Coral and Lee County have each sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers saying the Corps’ option of choice, Alternative CC, disproportionately sends water west via the Caloosahatchee.

Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane sent a followup letter last Tuesday after following the Army Corp’s Web Meeting held the day before.

“Lee County closely followed the Army Corp’s Web Meeting held on August 9th and continue to be frustrated with the direction of the ‘preferred alternative’ and optimization process,” Ruane wrote. “Lee County remains profoundly disappointed with the starting point for optimization, and we continue to be concerned about how ‘optimization’ will occur over the next two months.”

He reiterated the county’s arguments against additional flows sent west and concluded with general unhappiness as to how the process has proceeded.

“Continuing down the path that you articulated has done little to alleviate our concerns,” Ruane wrote. “We continue to be frustrated by the process and the outcome. We sincerely hope that appropriate changes are made to achieve balance in Lake Operations.”

The Corps must have a new 10-year management plan in place and ready to be implemented by the end of 2022 when the Herbert Hoover Dike construction is complete.

The Corps looked at six options and says Alternative CC meets 10 of its 11 stated management objectives. Those objectives include continued protection of the dike that surrounds the lake and related flood control; reducing the algal bloom risk in the lake and affected estuaries; enhancing the ecology of the lake, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and south Florida by sending more water south to benefit the ‘Glades; and maintaining congressionally authorized navigation and recreation projects.