Lake Okeechobee: How low will it go?

OKEECHOBEE — How low will Lake Okeechobee go this year?

On Saturday, May 2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District increased flows from the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79) to the Caloosahatchee estuary at a 7-day average rate of 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the benefit of the estuary.

Lake Okeechobee is a vast, but very shallow lake. On Friday, May 1, the official lake level (measured by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) was 11.43 feet above sea level.

The level above sea level is not the depth of the lake. The bottom of the freshwater lake is above sea level.

Fishermen know when the lake level falls below 12 feet, they have to be careful. When the lake is this low, the water at the shoreline is only inches deep. Those who aren’t familiar with the Big O could damage their boats. The fishing is good, according to reports from those who have ventured out, but this is the time of year to go with someone who really knows the lake.

On Friday, May 1, I visited the pier at the Clif Betts Jr. Memorial Lakeside Recreation Area, formerly known as Jaycee Park and commonly called Lock 7 by the locals. (Why people in Okeechobee call it Lock 7 is a tale for another day. There is no lock there and never was one.)

The area under the pier has dried out to the extent that not only has grass grown past the third set of pylons under the pier, but the area under the pier is also so dry that the county was able mow the grass.

As the lake has receded, the area under the pier has dried out to the extent that Okeechobee County maintenance staff have been able to mow the grass.
As the lake has receded, the area under the pier has dried out to the extent that Okeechobee County maintenance staff have been able to mow the grass.

On Saturday, I put on my rubber “barn boots” to investigate further and brought a friend along to help with photos.

My rubber boots are 12 inches tall. I waded out into the lake until the water level was about an inch below the tops of my boots. At that point, I had also sunk an inch or more into the muck at the bottom of the lake, so the actual water level was less than 10 inches. Comparing that to the pier, this about as far out into the lake as fourth set of pylons.

Katrina Elsken wades in Lake Okeechobee on May 2, 2020. Under the pier, a line of concrete “reef balls” are visible. The concrete balls were placed on the lake bottom years ago when prolonged high lake levels destroyed the vegetation, leaving no cover for young fish.

The low lake level means three locks on the northern end of the lake are closed to boat traffic due to safety concerns.  Injury and lock damage could occur when boats pass through these structures when lake levels are outside of designated safety limits.

Currently, the S-193 boat lock at Taylor Creek in Okeechobee County is open on Saturdays and Sundays between 5:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. The S-193 lock will close entirely if Lake Okeechobee is below 11 feet. Locks will resume normal operations when the lake is at least 12.5 feet.

Birds are often seen sunning on the exposed reef balls at the end of the pier.

Scientists have agreed the most beneficial levels for the lake’s ecology is the range of 12 feet to 15 feet. Nature designed the lake rise slowly in the wet season and fall slowly in the dry season. The Central and South Florida Flood Control Project changed the whole system. Now, when there is heavy rainfall in the area north of the lake, instead of slowly sheetflowing into the lake over many months, it flows rapidly into the Big O. When the water rises faster than the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) can grow, it can damage or even kill the SAV.

That happened after Hurricane Irma. The hurricane churned up the lake, ripping out vegetation and leaving the water muddy. The flood waters draining from the north (Orlando south) made the situation worse.

To help the SAV recover, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to release more water during the 2018-2019 dry season. They sent extra water to the Caloosahatchee River throughout the dry season and released water to the St. Lucie River for six weeks in February and March 2019. This extra water sent to tide (in addition to the 457 cubic feet per second the South Florida Water Management District already allocates to the Caloosahatchee during the dry season) added up to about one foot of water on Lake Okeechobee. When the lake fell below 11 feet in June 2019, water managers were not concerned. They expected the 2019 wet season to bring the lake level back up to 15 feet. That didn’t happen.

The lake started the 2019-2020 dry season at 13.38 feet. While those who depend on the lake for water supply were concerned, some coastal residents wanted it even lower. When the corps announced plans to manage the already low lake to maximize water supply, the City of Stuart threatened to sue. They wanted the corps to release more water to push the lake lower.

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