Corps attempting to lower Lake Okeechobee level

OKEECHOBEE — Be careful what you wish for.

Since the election, Gov. Ron Desantis and Congressman Brian Mast has been lobbying to lower Lake Okeechobee during the dry season, in order leave more capacity in the lake for wet season rain and reduce or prevent the need to release freshwater from the lake to the coastal estuaries during the wet season.

The problem with that logic is the only way to increase flow out of Lake Okeechobee is to release lake water to the coastal estuaries during the dry season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will start lake releases on Saturday, Feb. 23.

The corps will use Additional Operational Flexibility as defined by the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to increase flows for the next three weeks. Starting Saturday, Feb. 23, and continuing for the next 21 days, the Corps will release water to the Caloosahatchee estuary at an average rate of 1,800 cubic feet per second from the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, and to the St. Lucie estuary from the St. Lucie Lock and Dam (S-79) at an average rate of 500 cubic feet per second. Additional runoff from rain in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins could occasionally result in flows that exceed one or both targets.

“The lake has risen more than a half-foot over the past month,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District Commander. “While we have moved more water south since the end of wet season, rain over the past few weeks has stopped the recession we saw in the lake levels earlier in dry season. We are taking this action to stem the rise in the lake and achieve a typical recession again so we can potentially avoid significant releases during the hot summer months.”

The goal of utilizing additional operational flexibility in the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (2008 LORS) is to help lower the lake levels during dry season. El Niño conditions, which have the potential to produce a wetter than normal dry season have developed in south Florida, fueling much of the precipitation that has occurred over the past month.

“We anticipate additional rain in the next week,” said Col. Kelly. “We know that oyster spawning season is coming, and we want to release water while we have the opportunity.

We will consider this effort to be a success if we can get through the summer without having to make high-volume releases while harmful algal blooms are on the lake.”

Friday’s lake stage is 12.86 feet above sea level, which is in Operational Base-Flow Sub-Band. During the past week, lake levels rose 0.09 feet, with an overall 0.57 foot rise in the past 30 days.

In addition to the flows east and west, the corps is working with our partners at the South Florida Water Management District to send more water south from the lake.

The corps will continue to monitor conditions and adjust flows as necessary. However, assuming no adjustments are made, after three weeks we will review our progress and determine whether any changes are needed. Any changes in flows to the estuaries will be announced to the public.

While east coast residents and officials have pushed for zero releases to the St. Lucie Canal, some dry season flow to the Caloosahatchee River is needed to prevent salt water intrusion in the river. Lee County officials have asked for a freshwater flow of an average of 800 cfs, measured at the Franklin Lock. Under the South Florida Water Management District regulations, the Caloosahatchee is guaranteed a dry season flow of 400 cfs. This wet season, the corps has given the river the optimum flow of 1,000 cfs. The corps had maintained the 7-day average pulse release schedule of 1,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee Estuary since Oct. 19.

What does this mean?

What do the new flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie mean in regard to lake level?
There are 98 days between the start of the new flow schedule and the start of the rainy season. The Caloosahatchee River was already receiving the 1,000 cfs dry season flow requested by Lee County officials. An increase of 800 cfs means an increase of 571 million gallons a day, for a total of about 56 billion gallons, the equivalent of 4.6 inches on Lake Okeechobee.

On the other side of the state, the flow to the St. Lucie of 500 cfs is about 323 million gallons a day, times 98 days, for a total of 31.6 billion gallons, or about 2.6 inches on Lake Okeechobee.

That’s a total difference of about 7.2 inches on the big lake …. but that doesn’t mean the lake level will actually go down, because rainfall keeps coming in, both directly into the lake and runoff from the watershed north of the lake. Also, if there is rainfall in local basins, flow from the lake will be reduced or stopped. The flow to the Caloosahatchee is measured at the Franklin Lock, which is 43.4 miles from the Moore Haven Lock on Lake Okeechobee. The flow to the St. Lucie is measured at the St. Lucie Lock, which is 23.7 miles from the Port Mayaca Lock on Lake Okeechobee.

Previous release decisions:

• Starting Friday, Feb. 1, a pulse release was implemented with a target 7-day average flows of 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79) near Fort Myers, continuing the use of Additional Operational Flexibility. The St. Lucie target remained at zero cfs.

• A new release schedule began on Friday, Jan. 25, with a constant release of 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at W.P. Franklin Lock (S-79) near Fort Myers. The St. Lucie target remained at zero cfs.

• Beginning on Friday, Jan. 11, a seven-day pulse release schedule began with a target flow averaging 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at W.P. Franklin Lock (S-79) near Fort Myers. The St. Lucie target remained at zero cfs.

• Starting Friday Oct. 5, the Corps began a gradual 3-week transition to reduce flows from Lake Okeechobee by implementing 7-day pulse releases with an average target flow for the Caloosahatchee Estuary of 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam (S-79) near Fort Myers, and zero cfs for the St. Lucie Estuary as measured at St. Lucie Lock & Dam (S-80) near Stuart. Average target flows to the Caloosahatchee were stepped down to 1,500 cfs on October 12, and 1,000 cfs on October 19, while the St. Lucie target remained at zero cfs.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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