LAKE OKEECHOBEE — The level of the Big O continues to rise, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will hold off any releases to coastal estuaries for at least another week.
“Things are changing at a faster pace at the end of this wet season than they were earlier in the year,” said Col. Andrew Kelly during a Sept. 24 media teleconference.
He said while releases sometime during the wet season are likely, there will be no releases for at least another seven days.
Col. Kelly praised the water managers with the corps and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) for their hard work in moving water around to “find some space south of the lake and capacity to release water that direction.”
He explained water is being moved “in creative and unique ways that gives us a few hundred cfs (cubic feet per second) here, a few hundred cfs there.
“As we open and close some of the structures, we’ve been able to move water through the WCAs (water conservation areas) and move it out of WCA-3, thereby creating a little more capacity of flow to the south,” he said.
No water from the lake has been released through the St. Lucie Lock since March 2019. Since the start of the wet season, no lake water has been released through the Franklin Lock on the Caloosahatchee River unless local basin runoff did not provide enough freshwater to prevent saltwater intrusion. For the past two weeks — as for most of the summer — all of the flow to the Caloosahatchee estuaries has been from local basin runoff.
The colonel said they are monitoring the situation on a weekly basis.
“At some point, it is likely there will not be capacity in the south anymore,” he said. “October is still a tough month for potential hurricanes. At this point we’re taking it one day at a time.
“It is likely that we will have to send water to the estuaries before the end of the rainy season,” Kelly speculated.
He said the primary concern at this time of year is to reduce the risk to the Herbert Hoover Dike. The optimum lake schedule is 12 feet to 15.5 feet (above sea level). As the lake level rises above 17 feet, the risk to the dike increases.
The dike is in better condition than it was three years ago, but the rehabilitation work is still ongoing. Dike repairs are on track for completion in 2022.
Some of the water in the lake came from the St. Lucie or C-44 basin. At the start of the wet season, when the lake was below 14 feet, water was allowed to backflow from the C-44 basin in Martin County into Lake Okeechobee.
The lake has taken approximately taken 6 inches (approximately 72 billion gallons of water) from the C-44 Canal since the beginning of the wet season, Kelly said. That doesn’t mean the lake would be 6 inches lower now if they had not allowed the backflow, he added. Water movement is more complicated than that.
Should releases be needed, a deviation to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) has been approved to limit releases if a harmful algae bloom is present near Port Mayaca (where the lake connects with the C-44 Canal) or near Moore Haven (where the lake connects with the Caloosahatchee River.)
The colonel said the corps monitors the Florida Department of Environmental Protection testing, which is conducted regularly. Currently the algae conditions are not bad, he said. “It’s not looking terrible at this point.”
Kelly said they make decisions about releases based on predictions because “we can’t get water out of the lake at a super rate of speed. We’ve got to make decisions based on the best available estimates that we’ve got. We’re watching all of the climate stuff. We’re watching the Atlantic.
“We’re making the best decision that we can at this time,” he continued.