WEST PALM BEACH — Lake Okeechobee releases to the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River will continue this week, but they could end soon, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville Commander Col. Andrew Kelly. Kelly spoke to reporters in a media conference call Friday afternoon.
“The lake is at 16.33 feet. The good news is, when we started our releases, we were running a 30-day average of about a foot and a half rate of rise on Lake Okeechobee. I am happy to report today that 30-day rolling average is less than a foot now, which is really great news because we are doing what we hoped we would do.”
He said the South Florida Water Management District is doing a great job moving water in every possible direction.
The corps has increased dam safety inspections on the Herbert Hoover Dike simply because the lake is high, said Kelly. The dike is in good condition, he said. “We are looking fantastic,” he said. “Field personnel goes to known areas on the dike and we are looking for changes. There haven’t been any changes. Everything is looking good. Things are good on that front, but as always we are very cautious when it comes to dam safety.
“We’ve almost stemmed the rate of rise,” he continued. “We are going to continue the releases we have going currently.” The release target calls for 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water released to the Caloosahatchee River at Moore Haven and 1,800 cfs. released to the St. Lucie River, measured at the St. Lucie Lock. Flow at the St. Lucie Lock includes local basin runoff, so the flow from lake flow to the St. Lucie River has been less than the 1,800 cfs target. Releases are also affected by other factors, such as tides. Releases started Oct. 14. For the first week of releases, flow from the lake at the Port Mayaca Lock averaged just 331 cfs. For the second week, flow from the lake at the Port Mayaca Lock averaged 906 cfs.
“If the weather holds — and it looks like it’s going to be dry — I think next week we will see a different decision,” Kelly said.
He said rain and the wind have kept algae in check. “We absolutely take algae into account when we make decisions,” Kelly said. “While the wind tends to move algae around, we are paying very close attention at the point of our release structures,” he explained. “We are watching that multiple times daily. Florida DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) has implemented innovative technologies in the vicinity of the release areas. We’ve got real time communication and we don’t have any significant hits on anything coming out of the lake,” he explained.
“We did get a few positive hits miles away from the releases at the center of the lake,” he added. (Lake Okeechobee is about 40 miles wide.)
Lake Okeechobee is about 3 feet higher than it was at this time last year, he said. “We are starting to think about how to manage the lake, coming out of the wet season when it ends.”
Coming out of the wet season this year will be significantly different than coming out of the wet season last year, Kelly explained.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he warned. With an active Atlantic hurricane season still under way, the corps continues to be concerned about the high lake level. The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) calls for a target high level of 15.5 feet.
Col. Kelly said the corps is considering an emergency deviation to the LORS to move more water out of the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) south of the lake.
“There are some structures around WCA 3 that are governed by our combined operation plan that have dates where those structures close,” he said. “Given 180% extra wet that we’ve got right now, we are considering an emergency deviation that would enable us to keep some of those structures open to reduce water levels in WCA 3 just because it is so high,” he said. That will not directly impact the flow from Lake Okeechobee, he added.