Lower water level benefits lake’s ecology

OKEECHOBEE — After Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in September 2017, the water level in Lake Okeechobee rose to a high of 17 feet. That high water level had a devastating effect on all the submerged vegetation on the lake, including hydrilla, eel grass and pepper grass, which grow best at around a lake level of 9 to 11 feet.

According to Florida Audubon Society’s Okeechobee Science Coordinator Dr. Paul Gray, the lower lake level will boost much needed vegetation in the lake. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion.

According to Florida Audubon Society’s Okeechobee science coordinator, Dr. Paul Gray, the vegetation on the lake has shrunk to around 5,000 acres, down from around 42,000 acres back in 2012.

That vegetation plays an important role in the ecology of the lake, especially when it relates to fishing. It provides a spawning ground for fish species during the wet season and cover for those same fish as they grow and increase in size.

But thanks to a particularly parched dry season over the last few months, there is hope that some of that vegetation will be able to recover. Currently, the lake level is sitting at around 12 feet, close to the range that will allow sunlight to hit the bottom of the lake and germinate the seeds of the lake grass.

“Most years we don’t want to go under 12 feet,” explained Dr. Gray. “But since we’re in recovery mode, going down to 11 feet for around three months will help restart those plants and help recover the lake. Because it’s got big problems now from having that 17 feet from Irma.”

If the lake does stay at around 11 feet for a good portion of the dry season, it should benefit the bass and crappie population in the lake as well as help clear the water around the marsh.

Still, there is a balance. If the water level falls under 9 feet, the seeds won’t be able to germinate and the lake will still be facing the same problems.

“I was in a meeting last week with scientists from the district and the Florida Wildlife Commission, and it was unanimous in the room that everybody wanted the lake to get to 11 feet because that’s what it is going to take to get those plants back,” said Dr. Gray. “I know lower levels make navigation inconvenient and that’s unfortunate, but we gotta take our medicine to get well.”

Tourism to the lake, especially fishing, brings in a significant amount of money to the Lake Okeechobee area. Fishing League Worldwide has hosted multiple tournaments on the lake, and fishing camps and resorts like Roland & Mary Ann Martin’s Marina in Clewiston rely on the lake to provide good fishing. If the lake continues to lose vegetation, it could be devastating to the local economy.

But Dr. Gray says he has confidence that things will rebound.

“This has happened before and we’ve been able to recover before,” Dr. Gray concluded. “We just have to get it going again.”

Hydrilla. Courtesy, IFAS, K.A. Langeland.

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