JACKSONVILLE – “Let’s just call it really, really wet,” was US Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville Commander Col. Andrew Kelly's description of the area south of Lake Okeechobee in a Friday media briefing.
The water conservation areas (WCAs) south of Lake Okeechobee received 8 to 10 inches of direct rainfall from Tropical Storm Eta, he explained. The WCAs were already above their regular schedule before the storm, so the extra rain made the flooding even worse.
“We’re still very much working emergency operations to the south of the lake,” Kelly said. He explained the WCAs ended up with an 187% increase over average rainfall in October and 780% so far in November.
“We’re breaking records on our gauges throughout the southern basin,” he added.
Lake Okeechobee and the area north of the lake is also wet, but in better shape than the area south of the Big O.
“Last week we were potentially looking at 10 inch rise of the lake depending on how Eta worked out,” Kelly said. He added the lake has risen about 4 inches so far and although the lake will continue to rise as the northern watershed drains south, they do not expect to see it rise 10 inches. One factor that will help is holding more water in the Kissimmee River Chain of Lakes.
Kelly said the South Florida Water Management District is “pumping to take care of every spot they can help with to deal with flooding in local communities.”
For the coming week, the corps will continue to release water east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River with a target of 1,800 cubic feet per second to the St. Lucie and 4,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee. They probably will not meet those targets, however, because they often have to adjust flow from the lake due to local basin runoff and tides.
“Those are just targets,” he explained. He said the Moore Haven lock where water enters the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee “was closed for at least 48 hours as we were managing the storm event and dealing with basin runoff.” He said they will not exacerbate any localized flooding with lake releases.
This requires “hour by hour, minute by minute management of those structures,” he continued.
On Friday, Lake Okeechobee was at 16.45 feet above sea level, about 4.5 inches more than it was last week and 3.1 feet more than it was at this time last year, he explained. “We got heavy volumes of rainfall in October and Eta decided it was going to do some more in November.”
It could take months for the situation to change, he said. “As we see the bigger picture right now we anticipate the southern part of the system is going to take months to get anywhere near normal.”
He said the corps will continue to work to get the water flows back to where they should be for this time of year. He said they can’t move water south because the WCAs are already too high. The water is already backing up at the Tamiami Trail.
“It is likely we will continue high volume releases (east and west) into the future as there is simply nowhere else for the water to go,” he said.
When asked about what dry season strategies are, he explained, “we’ve got to get this wet season under control before we can do that.”
Kelly said they may be looking at a drier than normal dry season. This year that would help. He said this dry season there will be plenty of water for all users. “We have no concerns at this point today about water supply. Everybody’s going to have more water than they want or need.”
During the dry season it will be important to get the lake down below 13 feet before the start of the next wet season, he continued. Otherwise, the 2021 wet season could be even worse in terms of releases to the coastal estuaries.
Kelly said they are still monitoring potential tropical storm activity in the Atlantic. “We have to get some water off the lake while the Atlantic is still active,” he said.
He said this spring they might have to use some operational flexibility that is built into Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). “We will look to aggressively reduce lake levels through the spring as we go forward,” he said. Otherwise they could be looking at a potential at the end of the dry season of the lake being about 15 feet, “and that’s not good for anybody.”
He said they have to get the lake level down during the dry season so they don’t start the wet season at a high lake level, “which would mean releases during the wet season when there is more potential for algae.”