Waters releases continue to Caloosahatchee due to Lake O levels high for this time of year

Reporter: Stephanie Byrne Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:
An aerial image of Lake Okeechobee in July 2020. Credit: WINK News.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday Lake Okeechobee is nearly three feet higher than it was this time last year.

It all comes down to managing water levels to keep people and the environment safe. We looked at what it means for the rest of dry season.

The end of 2020 packed a punch.

“Ever since those wet months of October and November, it’s been hard to get the lake to recede,” explained John Campbell, a public affairs specialist for the Corps’ Jacksonville district.

The Army Corps is left with Lake Okeechobee lingering above 15 feet, which is around 2 to 3 feet higher than engineers would like to see before the wet season.

“It just leaves a lot of water in the lake with a shrinking window before wet season arrives and a little bit of a race against time,” Campbell said.

At last look, the Corps releases an average weekly flow of 2,000 cubic feet per second out of W.P. Franklin Lock, which is more than enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every minute to the Caloosahatchee River, about another 1,000 cubic feet south, and none to the east through the St. Lucie River.

Thanks to what’s called a “deviation,” the Corps can release more water than its plan typically allows during the dry season.

“So that we’re not necessarily forced into larger releases during wet season when there might be algae on the lake,” Campbell said.

Harmful algal blooms such as blue-green algae and red tide are also top of mind for environmental groups.

“We’re very concerned, especially with the red tide lingering out there, that if we enter the rainy season with the lake levels high and the Army Corps has to make the regulatory releases to the estuaries, that those flows would feed red tide,” said James Evans, the environmental policy director for Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

Evans explained, as we head into the spring, wild seagrass beds and oysters begin to recover from this bout of releases.

“As we move into March and April and May, that’s the spawning time for our oysters,” Evans said.

That means, if we get too much water flow during that time, larvae could have a hard time settling and growing.

The Corps hopes to lower Lake Okeechobee flows going into March and April, but must wait to see what happens with the weather.

Thursday afternoon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to provide an update about releases.

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