LAKE OKEECHOBEE – With just weeks before the start of the hurricane season and Lake Okeechobee at 14 feet above sea level, once again Mother Nature is in charge.
“Mother Nature definitely has the strongest hand in this game,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District in a media briefing on April 30.
The corps made no change in the lake releases for the coming week. Releases to the Caloosahatchee River are 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), measured at the Franklin Lock. The Caloosahatchee River needs some freshwater flow from the lake in the dry season. Flows below 450 cfs are deemed harmful because the salinity levels rise too high. Flows above 2,800 cfs are considered harmful because the salinity levels drop too low. Rainfall in the Caloosahatchee basin could result in higher releases than the 2,000 cfs target to the Caloosahatchee River, due to local basin runoff. The Franklin Lock is 43.4 miles from the Moore Haven Lock, where water from the lake enters the river. If there is enough basin runoff for flow to meet the target flow at the Franklin Lock, no lake water is released at Moore Haven.
No lake water is being released to the St. Lucie River.
The Caloosahatchee River needs some Lake Okeechobee water this time of year, the colonel explained. The St. Lucie does not.
He said 60% of the water being released from the big lake is going south.
May is a transitional month, said Kelly. “It’s unpredictable on the lake.”
At 14.01 feet above sea level on April 30, the lake is about six inches lower than it was one month ago, but it is 2.5 feet higher than it was this time last year.
The lake is receding, he said. “The next week looks pretty good in terms of dryness.”
The lake level “will potentially be at 13.5 by the end of the dry season if Mother Nature continues with a little bit of dryness for now,” he explained. “We are concerned about that, but not overly concerned.”
Kelly said the corps, the Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes and state officials executed a hurricane drill on April 29, modeling the impacts a hurricane would make should it travel across the big lake.
“I think we’re well prepared to enter into hurricane season this year,” said Kelly.
Kelly said the corps, along with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) are monitoring the algae conditions daily.
He said they are looking at the trends, satellite imagery and FDEP water samples.
He said the spike in algae at the Pahokee marina was localized.
Elsewhere, “we’re seeing (algae) dissipation this week on the lake, predominantly due to wind,” said Kelly. “This is still pretty typical this time of year.”
Kelly said FDEP is beginning an uptick in monitoring and SFWMD is working aggressively on potential treatment options on localized algae problems.
“We don’t have any real good way to predict algae over time,” he explained. “We’ve been cautious and we will continue to be cautious."
He said as long as the lake is receding, they do not anticipate releasing water to the St. Lucie.
“If that changes in May, and we see that recession rate plateau or bump up a little bit, we may have to release at the 308 (St. Lucie lock),” he said. “We are hopeful in the next couple weeks that we will see an increased recession rate.”
The colonel said he doesn’t set targets for the lake level. “A target is not something that is achievable if Mother Nature decides to do something different.”
He said they will try to get as much water off the lake as they can prior to the start of hurricane season. He said the higher the lake goes, the fewer options he will have. When a hurricane is out in the Atlantic, they need enough capacity in the lake to prevent catastrophic flooding. At that point, “the overriding priority becomes releasing water,” he explained.
For example, “as soon as Eta hit, we went into an immediate mode of trying to get water off the lake,”
“As the Atlantic gets active with hurricanes, we have to make sure there is enough space in the lake to hold the rainfall from a significant event,” he said.