Corps and SFWMD move more water south

OKEECHOBEE — Faced with continued rainfall in an unsually wet “dry season,” and complaints from coastal communities about Lake Okeechobee releases to the east and west, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management officials have approved plans to move more water south.

On Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division approved a request from Florida Governor Rick Scott for deviation from its water control plan for a key Everglades reservoir located west of Miami.

The division made the decision to grant the request for deviation based on extensive documentation from within the Corps and multiple partners representing federal, state, and tribal interests.

The deviation raises water levels in the L-29 canal, which runs along the north side of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Hwy. 41) between Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3) and Everglades National Park. The WCA-3 water control plan limited those levels to elevation 7.5 feet (NGVD). The deviation raises the levels as high as elevation 8.5 feet, which would allow more water to flow from WCA-3 to Everglades National Park.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed analysis on consequences that would result from a breach in the dike with a lake level at elevation 25 feet (NAVD). Based on this analysis, the Corps has identified seven common inundation zones designed to illustrate areas that could be impacted.

“WCA-3 is a foot above its regulation schedule,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander. “This action will allow us to get more water out of the conservation area and lower the water level.”

Before granting the deviation, the Corps coordinated with tribal staff, while the State of Florida coordinated to obtain the necessary permissions from private property owners who face potential flooding from higher canal levels. The action would allow up to 900 additional cubic feet per second (cfs) to flow through the L-29 canal and into Everglades National Park.

“Our current focus is to lower the water level in WCA-3,” said Kirk. “If the level drops and we start seeing capacity in the conservation areas, then we could look at sending water from Lake Okeechobee south as well.”

Monday’s stage in WCA-3 is 11.41 feet and rising. The top of its regulation schedule is 10.21 feet. Nearly all water control plans for lakes and reservoirs in south Florida call for decreasing levels during the traditional dry season to make room for rain that falls during wet season, which typically begins in the latter part of spring.

The Corps of Engineers partnered with the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and coordinating with the Miccosukee and Seminole tribal staff to undertake this emergency action.

To relieve flooding and dire conditions impacting Everglades wildlife, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Tuesday opened water control gates to move water out of Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3).

Maximizing gate openings at the S-333 structure along the Tamiami Trail will allow about 10,000 gallons of clean water a second to flow south from the WCA into Northeast Shark River Slough in Everglades National Park.

The WCA, spanning Broward and Miami-Dade counties, has been inundated with record rainfall, including:
• The wettest January on record since recordkeeping began in 1932;
• The wettest November through January, the first half of the dry season, since recordkeeping began in 1932;
• 6-8 inches of rain directly over the WCA in one 24-hour period in January.

This record rainfall and increased stormwater flows into the wetland resulted in the WCA rapidly rising to its highest level since 1994. The current level is approximately 11.41 feet, which is more than a foot too high.

At this extremely high level, wildlife loses critical food sources and safe habitat and cannot survive prolonged flooding conditions.

Emergency gate operations will lower the WCA level as rapidly and as safely as possible. The rate at which water levels fall is highly dependent upon daily rainfall.

Once the level becomes safe for wildlife, water managers will once again have flexibility to move water south from Lake Okeechobee, through water-cleaning wetlands, and into the Water Conservation Areas, helping to protect the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

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