Col. Kelly: ‘Everything is looking good’ on lake level

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/USACOE
LAKE OKEECHOBEE — Col. Andrew Kelly and other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff visited Lake Okeechobee last week. While in the area, Col. Kelly visited the C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area near Indiantown, construction at the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, and multiple locks along the Okeechobee Waterway.

JACKSONVILLE — Lake Okeechobee is slowly but steadily rising, and “everything is looking good,” Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, reported July 23 during a media phone conference.

He said the corps has no plans to make any changes to the current lake schedule this year. Beneficial releases from the lake to the Caloosahatchee will only be done if needed to maintain a minimum of 650 cubic feet per second flow at the Franklin Lock to prevent saltwater intrusion. If there is sufficient rainfall in the Caloosahatchee River basin to provide the freshwater flow needed at the Franklin Lock, no water will be released from the lake. The Franklin Lock is 43.4 miles from the Moore Haven Lock where the river connects to the lake.

No releases will be made to the St. Lucie River. At Port Mayaca, millions of gallons of water continue to back-flow into Lake Okeechobee from the St. Lucie Canal.

“Everything is looking good,” said the colonel, who toured Lake Okeechobee earlier in the week.

“We are paying attention to the Atlantic,” he added. When it comes to managing Lake Okeechobee, one big hurricane can change everything.

He said there has been recent discussion about closing the gates at Port Mayaca and sending water from the C-44 to Caulkins Water Farm instead. The water farm percolates water into the aquifer. However, the colonel explained the current focus is on water conservation. Even though the backflow from the C-44 Canal is high in phosphorus and nitrogen, water supply is the current priority, he explained.

Recent rainfall has helped the system, but “nothing has changed” in terms of the current water management plan, he said.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Paul Gray
LAKE OKEECHOBEE — Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon shared this photo from last week’s corps visit. Col Jason Kelly is waving while Col. Drew Kelly is at the front of the airboat. “I had the honor of touring Lake Okeechobee with USACE staff including Colonel Jason Kelly, SAD commander, and Colonel Drew Kelly, JAX commander, LTC Todd Polk, and three other boats of corps staff. We talked water levels, hurricanes, droughts, submerged aquatic vegetation, algal blooms, did some birdwatching and outran the rainstorm to get back dry. Thanks to the corps for visiting the lake to get on-the-water understanding of conditions,” Gray related.

Coastal officials wanted more fresh water from Lake Okeechobee sent to the Caloosahathcee River during the dry season. “We gave them enough, but not as much as they wanted,” he said.

When the lake has risen sufficiently, the first change in the management plan would be to close the gate at Port Mayaca and stop allowing water from the St. Lucie (C-44) to flow into the lake. At that point, water from that canal might be pumped into Caulkins Water Farm to prevent releases to the St. Lucie River at the St. Lucie Lock.

Kelly said although there is now a plan in place to deviate from the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) if necessary to reduce releases of lake water to the coastal estuaries if there is a cyanobacterial bloom on the lake, there are no plans to deviate from LORS this year.

Repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are on track, Kelly said. All of the contracts have been awarded. The dike rehabilitation is on schedule for completion in 2022.

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