June 1 lake level no guarantee on estuary releases

OKEECHOBEE – Is the June 1 level of Lake Okeechobee an indicator of coming lake releases? It’s not that simple according to lake level records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It’s the rainfall after June 1 that makes the difference.

During the Stuart City Commission meeting on Jan. 27 and again at the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) meeting in West Palm Beach on Jan. 30, supporters of Congressman Brian Mast’s proposal to lower Lake Okeechobee to 10.5 feet by June 1 repeatedly claimed that since the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was adopted in 2008, every time the lake was above 12 feet on June 1 there have been freshwater discharges to the St. Lucie River during the wet season.

Documentation obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District shows these claims are incorrect.

Since 2008, there have been eight years in which water was released to the St. Lucie in order to lower Lake Okeechobee in an attempt to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. The dike, an earthen berm which surrounds the Big O, was deemed in 2008 to be at the top of the list of most “at risk” dikes and dams in the country. High lake levels increase the danger that the dike might breach. LORS attempts to keep the lake below 15.5 feet.

In eight of the 12 years since LORS was established, water from the lake was released to the St. Lucie. The June 1 levels for those years ranged from 9.58 feet to 14.19 feet.

The level of the lake also is not a good predictor of how much water from the lake will be released during the rainy season. In 2017, when the lake started the dry season at 10.93 feet, more water was released to the St. Lucie canal than in 2018 when the June 1 level was 14.19 feet.

In two of the four years in which no lake releases to the St. Lucie canal were needed, the lake level was above 12 feet on June 1. The June 1, 2014 level was 12.46 feet. The June 1, 2015 level was 12.66 feet.

Scientific studies have shown that 12 to 15 feet is the most beneficial range for the lake’s own ecology. Occasional draw downs — once every 5 to 10 years — can be beneficial to regrowing the submerged aquatic vegetation around the lake’s edges. Historically, periodic low lake levels have been the result of drought. Repairs on the dike are expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The corps is currently developing LOSOM which will replace LORS at that time.

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