Lake level holds steady despite releases

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will maintain the flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee this week, with a target average flow of 650 cubic feet per second, measured at the Franklin Lock, according to a Nov. 8, media conference with Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If local basin runoff meets or exceeds the 650 cfs targeted release at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, no water will be released from Lake Okeechobee at Moore Haven Lock and Dam.

No water will be released at Port Mayaca to the St. Lucie Canal.

Col. Kelly said the level of Lake Okeechobee remained steady during October.

“We are more confident, moving into the dry season,” he said. “Things are looking good for the long term.”

He said the Caloosahatchee needs the freshwater releases and so far “Lake Okeechobee is doing OK.”

The lake level is about a foot lower than the historic average for this time of year, he explained. It is in the bottom 15th percentile, which means 85 percent of the time, the lake level was higher at this time of year.

Navigation levels are not a concern at this time, he said.

Col. Kelly said the extra releases from the lake during the 2018-2019 dry season were a one-time use of the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule’s operational flexibility. The lake level was lowered for the health of the lake, he continued, to give the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) a chance to recover from several back-to-back years of high water levels and the damage done by Hurricane Irma.

Early indications show the plan worked and the lake’s natural SAV is recovering. In 2018, Lake Okeechobee’s SAV had shrunk to just 5,000 acres. Col. Kelly said current estimates show 28,000 acres of SAV in the Big O.

“The SAV is in great shape,” he said. Water clarity has improved and the plants had enough time to grow. When the wet season started in earnest and the lake started to rise quickly, there was some concern that the lake level would rise too quickly and the plants would not be able to grow fast enough to keep up with the rising water levels. Col. Kelly said the shortest wet season and the driest September in history stalled that concern. The lake level flatlined for the past month, the SAV is doing well, he said.

According to the South Florida Water Management District, the restoration goal is to consistently have more than 40,000 acres of SAV in order to provide abundant habitat for fish and wildlife and to help maintain good water quality in the shoreline area.

On Friday, the lake level was 13.35 feet, down 0.08 feet in the past 30 days.

Col. Kelly said they will continue to make decisions about releases on a weekly basis and to monitor conditions throughout the watershed. At this time, he said, they do not anticipate releasing water during the dry season in an attempt to lower the lake level.

The operational flexibility releases during the 2018-2019 dry season were likely a “one-off,” he said.

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