Lake level expected to continue to drop

OKEECHOBEE — Water managers predict that the level of Lake Okeechobee, at 14.37 ft. on Friday, will continue to drop and could reach 12.5 ft. by June. That dry season drop would be beneficial to the lake’s ecology according to biologists.

“It’s dry. In the near term, it is going to stay dry,” said Cal Neidrauer, South Florida Water Management District Chief Engineer, Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau, at the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon at their March 16 meeting in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse.

He said there is too much uncertainty to predict what will happen when the wet season starts in June.

“After Hurricane Irma, things dried out,” he said. “We had four consecutive months of below-average rainfall.

He said the district has only had about 55 percent of average rainfall during the dry season so far.

The largest rainfall deficit is in the upper Kissimmee basin.

He said water levels are dropping in chain of lakes, and these levels are ecologically desirable.

The lake level is tracking downward, he said. Relative to last year, it’s a foot and a half higher than a year ago.

The water levels in the water conservation areas (WCAs) south of the lake are at or below schedule, which gives the green light for sending water south, he continued. Water flow from the lake to the south is about 900 cubic feet per second (cfs).

Water has been released to the south for the past six weeks, he said.

No water from the lake has flowed east to the St. Lucie this year.

Flow to the Caloosahatchee River is limited to the amount of water needed to supplement basin flow and maintain the desirable salinity levels in the river and the Caloosahatchee estuary. Since Jan. 5, plus flows to the Caloosahatchee have been about 354 cfs.

“Looking ahead, the drought monitor for Florida is showing a good portion of the state in dry conditions,” Mr. Neidraruer said. “We are seeing the areas of drought conditions growing, which makes sense considering the rainfall.”

Weather forecasters predict a high chance of below-normal rainfall in April, he said.

“We are currently experiencing La Nina conditions. We’re likely to receive below-average rainfall for the next month or so.”

Seven projections done using data from other La Nina years indicate the lake will drop to 13 ft. by the first week in June. Four of the seven projections indicate the lake will fall between 12 and 12.5 ft. by the first week in June.

“Our biologists say if that happens, it will be good for the lake,” he said.

The wet season rainfall is very difficult to predict,” said Mr. Neidraruer. The current analysis indicates about 10 percent chance the lake level will rise to the point that it will require harmful releases to the coastal estuaries in September, and about a 20 percent chance that harmful freshwater releases will be required in October.

Coalition members present at the meeting were Glades County Commissioner Weston Pryor, Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, Highlands County Commissioner Jack Richie, Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief, Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinley, Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb and St. Lucie County Commissioner Frannie Hutchison.

In other business, March 16, Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner was re-elected chair of the coalition. Osceola County Commissioner Cheryl Grieb was elected vice chair.

The 16-county coalition had planned a fly-in March 21, to Washington, D.C., but only two coalition members were available that day.

“If we can’t get more of us to go, we should perhaps reschedule,” said Commissioner Smith. “If we don’t go up en masse, my concern is we may be sending the wrong message.”

The coalition agreed to reschedule the trip for April. The Florida Association of Counties (FAC) is already planning a trip to D.C. in April. Commissioner Turner suggested they take advantage of the fact that many commissioners from the 16 member counties will already be there.

“Going up there with just one or two or three of us is not worth the trip, and not worth asking the Congressmen and women to come and meet with us,” said Commissioner Mann. “But the FAC agenda is different than this coalition’s agenda.”

“We should co-ordinate, and borrow and steal commissioners from the 16 counties to be part of this,” said Commissioner Mann. He said other commissioners from the 16 coalition member counties could participate if the designated coalition representatives were not available.

“There is nothing more important to our 16 counties than water issues,” he said. “We need to not get ourselves diluted by a broader agenda.”

Commissioner McKinley suggested they asked FAC to put a 16-county coalition meeting on their agenda.

All of the coalition members reported good things happening in their counties.

“All is well in the best county in the state,” said Glades County’s representative.

Commissioner Pryor said Glades County is moving forward on a septic-to-sewer project.

Hendry County’s representative requested the coalition consider a resolution in regard to chemical spraying of aquatic vegetation in Lake Okeechobee. Commissioner Turner suggested they ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection look at the manner and schedule that spraying occurs.

“Highlands County has got everything going for it,” said Commissioner Richie. “We all have blue roofs.

“We had a direct hit as most of you know and many if not most of the roofs were affected in Highlands County.

“The water tables are great and the fire conditions are terrible,” he said. “It’s an anomaly having so much water in our lakes right now and everything else turning into a desert from lack of rain.”

Commissioner Mann said Lee County is still suffering from Irma and dealing with hurricane damage and hurricane clean up.

“Ironically Hurricane Irma hit Lee County on Sept 10,” he said. “On Sept. 10, 1960, Hurricane Donna took almost the same path.

“Donna came at such an angle that she pulled all of the water out of the Caloosahatchee River and the river was dry — it was almost Biblical.

“Hurricane Irma hit a slightly different angle and resulted in flooding,” he said.

He said they have discussed what they can do to clean the debris out of the dozens of rivers and creeks.

“When you flood, you have to get that water out to the Gulf of Mexico as fast as you can,” he said.

If hurricane debris is not cleaned up before the wet season, flooding could again be a problem.

“Some of the creeks, it’s frightening how thoroughly they are log jammed. It is going to be an enormous undertaking to clean that up,” he said.

“I think Lee County has done a better job of learning, and now we are working to improve that situation,” he said.

“Flooding hurt a lot of people.”

Martin County Commissioner Smith noted that Indiantown incorporated last year and just held elections for city officials. Hobe Sound is also on the incorporation route, he said.

He said the coral reef from the area near St. Lucie estuary to Key Biscayne is in significant peril.

He said they are studying water quality along all of the inlets.

“We will have significant amounts of data to determine what is damaging our reef,” he said. He added that reefs near Guam, Samoa and Hawaii are suffering the same type of damage.

“At the rate at which this thing is accelerating we need everyone’s help to find out what is happening and stop it, or at least slow it down,” he said.

Commissioner Hazellief said Okeechobee County will continue to work on septic-to-sewer conversion.

He said Bass Pro has signed an agreement to build a resort on the Okee-Tantie property.

“That can be a big thing, just thinking about the advertising they will do for this area,” he said.

Osceola Commissioner Grieb said Osceola County is seeking help to control future flooding. She said they will be pushing for a survey of the northern section of Osceola County.

Commissioner McKinley said Palm Beach County is in diligent conversation with the South Florida Water Management District for the Loxahatchee River restoration project.
She said DEP and SFWMD have signed off on plans for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

“We are happy we were able to negotiate that deal without taking any land out of agricultural production,” she said.

Commissioner McKinley said the state budget did not provide any money for stormwater improvement projects for the Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee area. The outdated stormwater systems are the reason those communities have to backpump into Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding, she added.

Palm Beach County was pleasantly surprised to receive another $980,000 this (state legislative) session, she said.

She said state money should not be used to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike because the project is already fully funded by federal dollars. The state money could be put to better use funding other projects, she added.

“We don’t need to be putting our state dollars toward the infrastructure projects,” she said.

“The president needs to tell the corps to use that money and move forward.”

She said the state had already committed $100 million to speed repairs on the dike.

“Yes, we want this repaired, yes we want it sped up. But the federal government has already fully funded it.

“Florida taxpayers should not have to pay twice with our income tax dollars and our state tax dollars,” said Commissioner McKinley. “I don’t want the state to be put in the position that we have to put another $100 million of state dollars into that project. We don’t know who will be sitting in the governor’s chair next year.”

Commissioner Hutchinson said St. Lucie County will ask voters to pass a half cent sales tax for 10 years with funds to go to stormwater projects.

She said the county is also approaching the city of Fort Pierce in discussions of how to move the sewer plant off the river. She added she has found increased interest in neighborhoods that want to work with the county on water quality projects.

“People are starting to put their money where their talk has always been,” she said.

“Amen to Okeechobee County and Bass Pro,” said Commissioner Mann. “It is a major statement when a major corporate entity like Bass Pro Shop is investing in Lake Okeechobee.

“It makes a financial statement that they still believe in Lake Okeechobee.

“Most of us believe that we have turned the situation around and we are making progress,” Commissioner Mann continued. He said the “gloom and doomers” seem to get all of the attention from the media.

“It is a healthy lake and I love to fish it,” he added.

Commissioner Turner said it is “beyond frustrating” when he takes media out on the lake and “you have them in your vessel and you are showing them bays that are gin clear,” and then the message on television and coastal newspapers shows the lake in a negative light.

He said FLW is the greatest bass tournament purveyor in the nation, and Lake Okeechobee is still their biggest draw, year after year.

He admitted the lake fisheries have taken a hit due to the hurricane, which churned the water and ripped up vegetation.

“It speaks volumes when (Bass Pro Shop owner) Johnny Morris signs a contract,” he said.

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

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