JACKSONVILLE — There will be no releases from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries for at least another week, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) told reporters in a media call Oct. 1.
“The good news is no change,” said Col. Kelly.
“We are at 15.54 feet (above sea level), about a foot and a quarter higher than a month ago,” he said. Last year at this time, South and Central Florida were out of the wet season, he said, nothing 2019 had one of the shortest wet seasons on record.
In said that, in accordance with dam safety protocols, the corps has started conducting physical inspections on the Hebert Hoover Dike.
“That is normal procedure for us at this lake level,” he said.
With the lake over 15.5 feet, the protocol calls for visual inspections at very specific locations known to be areas of risk.
“We have been working on the dike for a long time,” said the colonel. “Every dam across the country has the target areas. We know those from history.”
He said they do not anticipate any problems.
With the lake at 15.5 feet, the plan calls for biweekly inspections. He said the inspectors are “driving around in trucks and walking around the dam taking a look at very specific things.”
As the water level rises, the frequency of inspections and the number of personnel increase, with more engineers checking the safety of the dike.
“We are out there now, just double-checking that everything is OK,” he said.
The colonel said the USACE has received approval for deviations in lake releases should there be harmful algae blooms (HABs) on Lake Okeechobee. Currently, he said images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show low potential for algal blooms on the Big O.
Col. Kelly said Florida Department Environmental Protection also monitors algae conditions on the lake with regular water sampling.
The colonel said decisions about potential releases to the St. Lucie (C-44) Canal and the Caloosahatchee River will be made on a week by week basis.
“We are doing as much as we can to prevent releases into the estuaries and continue to move water south,” he said.
He said the corps and South Florida Water Management District personnel have done a fantastic job “finding capacity south so we don’t have to do releases.”
“What we are doing now is preventing releases or delaying releases to the estuaries,” he explained.
However, if a storm is headed for Florida and the corps is forced to release water from the lake, it may have to be at a higher level than if they started releasing sooner.
It’s a “race to the end of the wet season,” he said.
“As we see things, we might not have to discharge at all,” he added.
What happens next? “That depends on Mother Nature. That depends on storms. That depends on what is coming around the corner,” he said.
“We’re in a good place. It is a very deliberate decision-making process, considering all of the factors we have, to make good decisions,” he explained.
That includes “considering dam safety protocol to make sure we are not taking on too much risk from a dam safety standpoint.
“Every week that we go, we are closer to the end (of the wet season). The risk of storm impact diminishes. Each week is a new risk paradigm,” Col. Kelly said.
A continuously rising lake at a rate that outpaces the end of the rainy season would trigger the need for releases, he said. “If the rainy season ends tomorrow, we’re OK,” he said.
If the rainy season continues six more weeks, “we’re going to have to release water.
“If we had a storm track heading for Florida and we knew about it days ago, we would be releasing now,” he said.
“There’s no magic number. It’s not 16 feet. It’s not 16.1. It’s not 15.8. It’s the trend,” he explained. “We’re watching the trend lines. We’re watching the Atlantic. We’re watching the Gulf.”
The colonel said they are also watching the rainfall in the coastal basins and other factors such as the tides.
“If we were to release, we also have to anticipate what the basin runoff will be,” he said. For example, the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) sets a maximum for releases through the Franklin Lock. If local basin runoff is already taking up all of the capacity for releases at the Franklin Lock, they cannot release lake water into the Caloosahatchee River.
When it’s time, should that time come, “we would likely be in a position to release in both directions and to the south as best we could,” he said.
South of the lake, water managers are moving as much water as they can. Col. Kelly said they have extended the time to keep the S-12 water control structures open to move more water under the Tamiami Trail to provide some capacity in Water Storage Area (WCA) 3A.
“There’s a lot of things going on in the southern end of the system to move water, keep it flowing,” he said. “The more we get out of the bottom, the more than can come in.”
He noted that rainfall south of the lake must also be a consideration.
“When you get a heavy rain, everything is saturated, and you are limited because all of the area is wet and you can’t push water into a wet area,” he said.
In other news, the colonel said the work on the Kissimmee River restoration is on track to be complete in 2021.
He said work is under way to remove the tussocks (floating islands made of plant material) that are blocking navigation at the Moore Haven Lock.
“We’ve got cranes and tugs and heavy equipment out there trying to get it cleaned out,” he explained.
“We’re in a race to the end of the rainy season,” he said.