Lake releases to continue

JACKSONVILLE — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District continues to release water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee Estuary this week.

“The good news is we got a little bit of rain, especially south of the lake,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville District, in an Oct. 11 media briefing.

He said the freshwater releases to the Caloosahatchee River are designed to offset the higher salinity levels in the estuaries. The colonel said the corps is concerned about the potential for drought and will review the lake release plans weekly.

The current releases began Saturday, Oct. 5, with a targeted pulse release to the Caloosahatchee estuary at a seven-day average rate of 650 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79). The corps also will continue to release water when necessary to maintain navigation levels in the canals and to provide water supply.

“We are still concerned that Lake Okeechobee levels are lower than normal for this time of year, and we are monitoring conditions and forecasts,” said Col. Kelly.

“We are in a good position on the lake if we receive the average rainfall we historically get in October, but we will discontinue releases if we continue to see drier than normal conditions like we had in September.”

At the Oct. 10 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, SFWMD officials were told that according to their weather forecast modeling, the wet season ended in September. That month was also the driest September since record-keeping started in 1932.

Friday’s stage at Lake Okeechobee was 13.49 feet, down 0.02 feet in the last week, and down 0.47 feet during the past 30 days.

During the 2018-2019 dry season, the corps used its operational flexibility provided in the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to manage the lake at lower levels in an effort to improve lake ecology.

The additional water released lowered the lake by about a foot. Most of the water released during the dry season was at levels beneficial to the Caloosahatchee estuary. The minimum flow level needed for the estuary, set at the Oct. 10 SFWMD meeting, is 457 cfs. During most of 2018-2019, lake water was released for a flow of 800 to 1,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee.

Col. Kelly said initial data indicates some successes for the operational flexibility strategy, particularly in regards to the recovery of submerged aquatic vegetation in the marshes around the edges of Lake Okeechobee.

If the lake level continues to fall, the Caloosahatchee River will likely receive less water this dry season.

The Department of Environmental Protection reports there is little potential for algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee, he said.

No lake releases will be made to the St. Lucie Canal.

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