Corps’ strategy sparks lawsuits, but doesn’t change lake level
JACKSONVILLE — During the 2018-2019 dry season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the “operational flexibility” in the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) to release more water to tide during the dry season in an effort to lower the level of the lake by the start of the wet season.
In August 2019, U.S. Sugar filed a lawsuit against the corps, in regard to concerns about water supply.
“By releasing water without preparing a new or updated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and analyzing the full impacts of that release of water on the lake, the people, and the downstream systems that rely upon its water, the Corps of Engineers has broken its own regulations and violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act,” Judy Sanchez, of U.S. Sugar, explained at the time.
Corps officials maintained from the start that the 2018-2019 dry season draw-down of Lake Okeechobee was a one-time event to help the lake’s submerged aquatic vegetation recover from the damage from Hurricane Irma.
The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2019.
On Dec. 19, 2019, Jacksonville District Commander Col. Andrew Kelly stated that during the 2019-2020 dry season, the corps would focus on retaining water in the lake while providing freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee River for as long as possible.
In January, the City of Stuart threatened a lawsuit against the corps over this perceived change in mindset about lake level management. At the Jan. 27 Stuart City Commission meeting, Commissioner Merritt Matheson argued for a lawsuit to lower the lake level to under 11 feet by the start of the dry season.
What difference did the change in philosophy on the part of the corps leadership make to the lake level? So far, less than inch on the Big O.
Last year, on Feb. 24, Lake Okeechobee was 12.85 feet above sea level.
This year, on Feb. 24, Lake Okeechobee was 12.78 feet above sea level.
Both years, the Caloosahatchee River has received beneficial dry season freshwater releases in excess of the 457 cubic feet per second minimum set by the South Florida Water Management District. In the 2018-2019 dry season, those releases averaged 800-1,000 cfs. This dry season, the releases have averaged 650 cfs. Flow is measured at the Franklin Lock, which is more than 40 miles from Moore Haven, where Lake Okeechobee flow enters the river. If there is local basin runoff directly into the river, less water is released from Lake O.
Like other corps officials in the past, Col. Kelly has noted on numerous occasions that “most of the time, Mother Nature is in charge” of the lake level.
The biggest factor that impacts the level of the Big O is rainfall in the watershed north of the lake. On average 90 percent or more of the flow into the lake comes from the northern watershed. Most of the water that leaves the lake does so through evaporation into the air and percolation through the earth into the aquifer. (An Audubon study estimated that if the lake received flow to raise the lake level 7 feet in a year, about 5 feet of that water evaporates or percolates.)
Corps and SFWMD officials continue to predict the lake level will be around 12 feet by the start of the wet season on June 1. But there are no guarantees: Most of the time, Mother Nature is in charge.