Lake releases decision was based on flood risk concerns

Posted 2/23/24

Should the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have started Lake Okeechobee releases sooner?

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Lake releases decision was based on flood risk concerns


OKEECHOBEE – Should the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have started Lake Okeechobee releases sooner?

That question was raised at the Feb. 23 meeting of County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon.

During the 2022-2023 dry season and for the first few months of the 2023-2024 dry season, USACE used “operational flexibility” in the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS-08) to “bank” water in Lake O instead of releasing it to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, in order to protect the ecology of the river estuaries.

As a result, Lake Okeechobee started the 2023-2024 dry season above 16 feet, and has stayed at or above 16 feet since.

For most of the dry season, USACE did not release any lake water to the St. Lucie River and limited releases to the Caloosahatchee River to 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) measured at the W. P. Franklin Lock, which is 43 miles from the Julian Keen Jr. Lock where lake water enters the river at Moore Haven.

Starting Feb. 17, USACE began releases averaging 4,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee River, measured at the Julian Keen Jr. Lock, and 1,800 cfs to the St. Lucie River.

At the Feb. 23 coalition meeting, some officials asked: Should they have started releases sooner?

The high lake level has been blamed for the damage to the lake's marsh and loss of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in the lake. The loss of this natural filter also means the lakewater  is higher in nutrient load.

“We realize at this point, there really aren’t more options,” said Lisa Kreiger, representing Lee County.

“The health of Lake Okeechobee is important to us,” Kreiger said. She said a healthy west marsh means cleaner water for the Caloosahatchee River.

“We saw this coming months ago,” said Kreiger. “Some management decisions prior to this point resulted in some missed opportunities.”

The Caloosahatchee needs some freshwater flow from the river if local basin runoff does not meet the beneficial flow required (around 500 to 2,000 cfs) to prevent salinity levels in the estuary from rising too high. However, freshwater flows above 2,600 cfs can damage the estuary because salinity levels drop too low. “We do have different needs of water, but that does not translate to unlimited releases,” Kreiger said.

“We’re very concerned with lake levels and SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation)” said Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, who chairs the coalition. He said Lake Okeechobee is very high for this time of year. In addition, cloudy days have limited the water taken up by evapotranspiration (the combination of evaporation and plant transpiration), he added.

“The concern is real,” said Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith. “We don’t necessarily have better options. The options are limited, which is unfortunate.”

Osceola County Commissioner Ricky Booth said they are concerned about plans to hold water higher in Lake Kissimmee. He said they would like to see more water released down the Kissimmee River to prevent flooding in Orlando. “Environmental concerns, we work on that all the time. The number one priority of the canals and the system is flood control. Everything else is secondary. The homes are already there. We are not going to flood them,” he said. “We do have to get rid of some more water and we do need to do a better job of being able to get rid of more water.”

This week (discharges started Feb. 17) only 28% of the amount that could have been discharged were discharged,” said Deborah Drum, representing Palm Beach County.

Col James Booth, commander of the USACE Jacksonville District, said the recent decision to release lake water east and west was based on flood control concerns going into the 2024 wet season.

He said the lake neared the end of the 2023 wet season around an average level, but heavy rainfall in September added about 1 foot to the lake level.

Booth said they knew they probably could not get the lake down to 12.5 feet level needed to recover the SAV in 2024 so he opted instead to prioritize the coastal estuaries and limit the freshwater releases to the beneficial flow to the Caloosahatchee River. At that time, they hoped to see the lake recede due to the normal dry season evapotranspiration, although they were concerned the predicted El Nino weather pattern could bring higher than normal rainfall.

“From Dec. 15 on, El Nino did in fact show up,” said Booth. “The second two months of the dry season has meant an increase on the lake instead of a recession,” he said.

Booth said they are currently concerned about the flood risk if they start the wet season with the lake high.

“I decided to prioritize function of flood risk management in the system,” said Booth. “That’s not an easy decision.”

He said they are trying to use pulse releases to allow some pause periods in the estuaries. USACE will reassess the lake release plan at the end of March.

Booth said south of Lake Okeechobee has also received heavy rainfall and there is not capacity in the stormwater treatment areas or water conservation areas (WCAs) to take more water. He said all the water control structures are open to move water from the WCAs under the Tamiami Trail, but the rainfall keeps refilling the WCAs. “The WCAs are getting down to schedule just to get bumped back up with rainfall,” he said. “It’s just due to how much rainfall is in the system.”

Lake Okeechobee, releases