Hurricanes Ian and Nicole brought destruction and new challenges to our communities, partners, stakeholders, and infrastructure. This year, I met scores of heroes who get up every day, find the strength to persevere despite overwhelming obstacles, and continue to serve and fight for Floridians.
During the height of hurricane emergency response efforts, our decisions were easy to reduce immediate impacts. Now, the question of how to manage all the water in Lake Okeechobee is upon us, and the solution is not an easy one. The lake climbed 4 feet in two months. We finally saw the lake peak at 16.51 feet and many breathed a sigh of relief. We’ve been coordinating with our partner agencies and soliciting their feedback on next steps.
Our strategy to manage Lake Okeechobee this dry season was developed after much reflection, listening and analysis. Our goal is to reduce water levels in Lake Okeechobee before the onset of the wet season by making beneficial releases to downstream users and environments. We’ve been making releases below maximums recommended by our current lake schedule and banking the difference for later. We will use the banked water to sustain releases longer into the dry season, which will help manage stages over the long term and help maintain optimum salinity levels in the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
We have an increased risk of below normal rainfall this dry season with the current La Niña condition and will run projections through June to help adjust our plan and minimize the risk of entering the Water Shortage Management Band. We expect an increased risk of algal blooms next summer due to the hurricanes. Making releases now will reduce the potential need to release water next year when algae risk is higher. We hope to get lake levels into the ecological stage envelope soon by continuing pulse releases at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79) averaging 2,000 cubic feet per second, remaining within the RECOVER recommendations for releases to the Caloosahatchee, and looking for opportunities to send water south in concert with our state partners. We will evaluate conditions throughout the dry season and adjust releases as necessary.
There are important things to consider with this strategy. We should see the lake reach the 14-15 feet NGVD range in early April and will need April and May to get the lake ready for next wet season. This is the same time frame we could have constrained releases if early algae blooms develop on the lake. With this in mind, we will monitor the stage recession over the next two months with an eye on implementing our Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) deviation tool if we do not see enough recession during this period.
Lowering lake water levels while protecting ecosystems on the lake, the estuaries, and throughout the Everglades, while also ensuring enough water is available for beneficial uses, is a delicate balance. As always, we remain committed to transparency and open communication, keeping all our stakeholders involved in discussions, so we make informed decisions.