Army Corps of Engineers on effectiveness of Lake Okeechobee releases

Reporter: Taylor Wirtz Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:
Lake Okeechobee. Credit: WINK News

Trying to keep Southwest Florida waterways clear of algal blooms makes it tricky to manage the release of water from Lake Okeechobee. On Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will give an update on how well the releases are working.

Right now, the water level for Lake Okeechobee is at around 12.5 feet, which is the Army Corps of Engineers’ desired level, so this is a good sign. Much of it probably has to do with the fact that the Corps strategically decided to release lake water in the dry season.

Doing those releases ahead of time, when it’s not wet and rainy, not only helps keep the lake from overflowing but it keeps a balance of lower salinity in the Caloosahatchee River. It’s a delicate balance, though, as too much freshwater could damage the ecosystem in the estuary. Experts say it’s something that will always be a work in progress.

“During the wet season, you typically see warmer temperatures, massive algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee; we’ve seen, you know, several 100-square-mile toxic cyanobacteria blooms this year on Lake Okeechobee,” said Daniel Andrews with Captains for Clear Water. “We get those releases in the wet season when we’re already getting a lot of water just from local watershed runoff. They’re very, very damaging to Southwest Florida. So we don’t… we don’t ever want to see releases… in the summertime.”

Other than some isolated incidents in the canals, we haven’t seen any blooms in the lower part of the Caloosahatchee, so the strategy to lower Lake Okeechobee levels before we reach hurricane season seems largely to be a success.

“The estuary is responding very well,” said Eric Milbrandt with Sanibel Captiva Conservation. “There’s… like I say, there the water is clear. The sea grass looks pretty good. And just in general, there’s a lack of large, you know, algae blooms occurring.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to complete the Herbert Hoover Dike restoration, as well as the Lake Okeechobee system operating manual, which will be an entirely new schedule for the Lake Okeechobee releases, in 2022. The Corps will give its update at 1:30 on Friday.

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