JACKSONVILLE – With Lake Okeechobee at 15.96 feet above sea level on Thursday, Dec. 17, Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, announced plans to further reduce releases from the lake east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River.
The colonel spoke to media representatives in a conference call on Dec. 17.
He said he expects lake releases to the St. Lucie to halt on Jan. 9.
“I am as close to 100% as I can be,” he said. “I have a high confidence level the transition plan will be done on Jan. 9.”
“We’re below 16 feet, sitting at 15.96 feet,” Kelly said. This is “pretty close to 3 feet higher than last year and close to a half a foot lower than it was 30 days ago.”
He said the lake level was “trending in the right direction.”
Starting Saturday, Dec. 19, the corps will switch the target for flow west from the Moore Haven Lock (S-77) to the Franklin Lock (S-79). Target flow at the Franklin Lock will be 2,500 cubic feet per second. The minimum flow at the Franklin Lock has been set by the South Florida Water Management District at 650 cfs. Flows below 650s cfs mean the salinity levels in the estuaries are too high. The ideal beneficial flow proposed by Lee County officials is 1,000 cfs. Levels of above 2,600 cfs are considered potentially harmful to the Caloosahatchee estuaries because the salinity levels in the estuaries fall too low. Moving the measuring point from Moore Haven to the Franklin Lock – which is 43.4 miles from Moore Haven – could mean a significant reduction in the amount of lake water released, he explained. For example, in the seven day period ending Dec. 17, flow at Moore Haven averaged 2,369 cfs and flow at the Franklin Lock – a combination of lake water and local basin runoff – was 4,191 cfs. With the target flow measured at the Franklin Lock, if there is heavy local basin runoff, there will be little capacity for lake water to flow into the Caloosahatchee, he explained.
“That’s almost cutting the releases to the Caloosahatchee in half,” he said. That will certainly cut Lake O water significantly, said Kelly.
After Christmas the flow at the Franklin Lock will be reduced to 1,500 cfs. The first week in January, it will be reduced to 1,000 cfs.
On the east side of the lake, the flow is always measured at the St. Lucie Lock (S-80) which is 23.9 miles from Port Mayaca where the St. Lucie Canal (C-44) connects to Lake Okeechobee.
Kelly said the corps will continue pulse releases to the St. Lucie, measured at the St. Lucie Lock. There will be no lake releases from Dec. 17-21, and releases averaging 1,500 cfs between Dec. 22-28.
No lake releases to the St. Lucie are planned Dec. 29-Jan. 2. Releases of 1,000 cfs are planned Jan. 3-9. Releases to the St. Lucie are anticipated to stop on Jan. 9.
Kelly said no water is moving south because they are still dealing with the massive amount of rainfall dropped south of the lake by Tropical Storm Eta. He said it may take until February to get the water levels down in the water conservation areas (WCAs) to the level that will allow any lake water to move south.
There are no deliberate flows directed south because of the high water levels in all of the WCAs and continued flooding concerns in all of the low lying areas, he explained.
“On or about the first of February, we will have better information on the prediction for the dry season,” said Kelly.
He said they continue to be concerned about the level the lake will be when the 2021 hurricane season starts.
“We want the lake to be a good place come June 1,” he added.
The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) does not call for lake releases east or west at this time of year if the lake is below 16 feet.
“We are working our way back to the LORS Schedule,” said Kelly.
He said they are keeping a close watch on the weather forecasts but it is too early to tell just how dry the dry season will be.
“Right now, we’re not seeing La Niña effects in Florida yet,” he said. In the current month, it’s kind of an equal chance of below or normal rainfall, he explained.
“We look at the predictions coming out of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the climatology that comes out of that,” he said.
“While we think there could be an effect of La Niña to make the dry season more dry, it doesn’t always work out that way,” he said. Many La Niña years did not bring the excessive dry weather that was predicted, he explained.