With Lake Okeechobee below 11 feet (above sea level) and still falling, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday announced plans to cut releases to the Caloosahatchee River from 800 cubic feet per second to 450 cubic feet per second. Starting Saturday, June 1, the Corps reduced the pulse release to the Caloosahatchee estuary to a seven-day average rate of 450 cfs, measured at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79).
“Our strategy to lower Lake Okeechobee levels this year is working,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District Commander. “We’re in a good position right now, with additional storage capacity that reduces risk of high releases to the estuaries during the wet season. The lake continues to recede as evapotranspiration kicks up a notch, as the days get longer and warmer.”
“With the water level dropping below 11 feet and approaching the water shortage management band, the time is appropriate to reduce flows slightly without significant environmental impacts,” said Col. Kelly.
“Scientists and other stakeholders report that submerged aquatic vegetation is regenerating nicely, which improves the health of the lake,” said Col. Kelly. “We’ve been able to build resilience in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries by keeping salinities in the good range.”
The Franklin Lock is 43.4 miles from the Moore Haven Lock. The water that flows through the Franklin Lock is a mixture of lake releases and local basin runoff. During the dry season, the Caloosahatchee River requires freshwater flow from the lake to prevent saltwater intrusion. The South Florida Water Management District plan guarantees the Caloosahatchee a minimum flow of 400 cfs. Lee County officials have lobbied for freshwater flows of 750 to 800 cfs and even as high as 1,000 cfs.
Flows to the St. Lucie canal will remain at 0 cfs as measured at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam (S-80). When the lake level is below 12 feet, if the Port Mayaca Locks are open, water backflows from the St. Lucie Canal into the lake. The flow at Port Mayaca is gravity flow. No lake water has been released to the St. Lucie Canal since March 30. A limited amount was released in late February and March. No lake water was released to the St. Lucie Canal from Oct. 4, 2018 to Feb. 23, 2019.
The new schedule will remain in effect until further notice. Additional runoff from rain in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins could occasionally result in flows that exceed one or both targets. The flow to the St. Lucie Estuary is measured at the St. Lucie Lock, which is 23.7 miles from the Port Mayaca Lock, where the lake water enters the St. Lucie Canal.
Due to the low lake level, all the navigation locks on the north side of Lake Okeechobee have been closed to boat traffic.
Boaters can still access the lake from boat ramps that are on the Kissimmee River or inside the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Boat ramps that provide access include:
• Lake Okeechobee Culvert 7;
• Okee-Tantie Recreation Area Airboat Ramp;
• Okee-Tantie Recreation Area Marina and Boat Ramp;