Releases slow rise of Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee has dropped more than one-tenth of a foot (1.32 inches) since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District increased water releases in late February. More than half of that flow was to the south of the big lake.

During the first 10 days of the releases, the water level in the lake dropped from elevation 12.85 on Feb. 23 to 12.74 feet on March 4. Total outflows from the lake (east, west, and south) during this time were 51,000 acre-feet or 16.6 billion gallons of water. One inch on Lake Okeechobee is about 12 billion gallons. While water was going out south, east and west and also being lost to evaporation, water was also still coming into the lake from the north.

“We are achieving our initial goal of slowing the rise in the lake,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District commander. “More than half the water that we have released has gone through the southern structures and canals. We will continue the releases at current rates and evaluate our progress as promised next week.”

On Feb. 22, Col. Kelly announced a decision to increase water releases from the lake. The corps established a seven-day average pulse release of 1,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the Caloosahatchee River measured at W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam (S-79) near Fort Myers, and a seven-day average pulse release of 500 cfs for the St. Lucie River measured at the St. Lucie Lock & Dam (S-80) near Stuart. Kelly announced the decision would be reviewed no later than 21 days following the start of the releases, which began Feb. 23.

The lake stage had steadily receded during the early part of dry season, causing it to drop to its lowest level for this time of year since the dry season of 2010-2011. Rains in late January reversed the recession, and caused the lake to rise more than 0.5 feet in the span of 30 days. The corps is seeking to help take the lake lower this year than in the past to help mitigate for the effects of multiple high-water events in the past few years.

“We want to help take the lake lower this year in particular to allow for regeneration of aquatic vegetation, which will help clean the water,” said Col. Kelly. “Taking the lake lower this year also reduces the probability of being forced to release water during the wet season when blooms are more likely.”

Col. Kelly says the corps doesn’t intend to drive the water level to a specific target.

“We want to take the lake lower in a responsible manner,” said Col. Kelly. “We have no specified target level. Our goal is to release what water we can without causing any significant impacts to the estuaries.

Col. Kelly said Jacksonville District engineers are trying a number of different things this year to avoid repeating patterns of past years.

“We sent water to the Caloosahatchee at a higher rate for a longer period of time than we have in the past when the lake has gotten this low,” said Col. Kelly. “We understand the frustration people feel with the pace of infrastructure construction and we want to do all we can to improve conditions across the system.”

The corps has started work on developing a new water control plan, known as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). When complete in 2022, the manual will provide updated guidance on management of water in Lake Okeechobee and surrounding areas.

“We are pleased with the participation in this effort so far,” said Kelly. “We estimate 2,000 people attended the nine meetings we had in February to share their thoughts on the priorities for the LOSOM effort. The team is now reviewing the comments we received at the meetings and through mail and email to set the priorities for the remainder of the process.”

The LOSOM project team announced this week that another scoping meeting would be conducted March 20 in Marathon. More details are available at https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOSOM/.

“The solution to management of water in Lake Okeechobee is multi-faceted,” said Col. Kelly. “If there were one simple solution, we would have already done it. Our challenge is balancing the many needs and purposes of Lake Okeechobee water in a manner that offers the greatest overall good for the people living and working in the region and the environment.”

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

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