Corps of Engineers to start reducing flows from Lake Okeechobee

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FILE Photo: Water being released from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River on October 29, 2018. Credit: WINK News.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Jacksonville District will start reducing outflows from Lake Okeechobee to the estuaries, starting Saturday, December 5.

USACE will reduce releases from Lake Okeechobee gradually to allow time for the ecosystems of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries to adjust.

Beginning December 5, USACE will begin the transition to dry season operations on Lake Okeechobee by implementing a 7-day release with a reduced average target flow for the Caloosahatchee Estuary of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at the Moore Haven Lock & Dam (S-77).

At the same time, the Corps will implement a multi-week release pattern for the St. Lucie Estuary, starting with a 5-day pause to allow for recovery of estuary health, followed by a 7-day average release of 1,500 cfs as measured at St. Lucie Lock & Dam (S-80) near Stuart.

“We will reduce the releases from Lake Okeechobee over the next month,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Commander of the Jacksonville District. “The 2020-2021 dry season has begun, and we will manage the lake in tandem with the needs and concerns of the people and ecosystems of south Florida.”

USACE will provide regular updates to the public and stakeholders about conditions in Lake Okeechobee and the system.

“We will continue to look at the system holistically and expect to be able to refine the dry season strategy for the south Florida system around February,” said Kelly. “By then, we should have a much better feeling for the effects, if any, of the La Niña, and the results of our gradual transition plan. We’ll be in a better position to evaluate the trends and conditions in the lake, the Everglades and the estuaries, including water supply and our ability to move water south.”

Anthony Karp said the blue-green algae that plagued his Cape Coral canal two years ago was so bad it was overwhelming. Now, he hopes it stays away, “It’s kind of been like at the back of my mind because it’s been nice, so it just got back to normal life and I’ve been worried about it.”

It was so significant, FGCU researchers placed an air sampler to measure toxins.

Additional runoff from rain in the local Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins could occasionally result in flows that exceed one or both targets. USACE lock operators will make real-time adjustments to spillways along the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Canal to maintain canal levels.

And while groups like the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation appreciate the way the corps handled releases this year, James Evans, the environmental policy director at SCCF said, “Conditions are still pretty poor for the ecology of the estuary and of course we would like to see that change as soon as possible.”

While it’s not as much of a reduction as Captains for Clean Water hoped for, Chris Wittman, the co-founder and program director, said, “We’re currently over twice the harm threshold that our estuary can handle and it looks like, at least for the next week, we’re only going to get a reduction of 1,000 cubic feet per second from 4,000 down to 3,000.”

However, they still think it’s a step in the right direction.

Lake Okeechobee is currently at 16.02 feet above sea level. During the past week, lake levels receded 0.18 feet, with a 0.19-foot drop in the past 30 days.

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