Water managers working to restore balance for Caloosahatchee River
An unusually wet “dry” season has forced South Florida’s water managers into an all-too-familiar balancing act.
Since November 1, the 16-county region of the South Florida Water Management District, including Lee County, has received an average of almost 6 inches of rain more than normal.
As recently as May 10, Lake Okeechobee’s water level stood above 15 feet — on the upper end of the management range used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The high lake level, the arrival of the wet season and forecasts for an active hurricane season have created the balancing act for the Corps and the District between the competing needs of flood control, public safety, water supply and the ecosystem.
Working with a fixed system with limited storage and a 730-square-mile lake surrounded by the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, the Corps has been releasing water from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers to protect public safety.
Southwest Florida residents are understandably frustrated with that decision. They do not need to be reminded of the harmful effects these freshwater releases have had on the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary in past years. The District hears these concerns and is taking every reasonable step possible to evaluate and implement strategies that will minimize the need for lake releases when our region has an overabundance of water.
Working with an assortment of other agencies, environmental organizations, ranchers and researchers, the District has added 126,350 acre-feet of surface water storage capacity on private, public and tribal lands around Lake Okeechobee since 2005. This additional storage has been made available through regional public projects and a District program that encourages property owners to hold water on their land rather than drain it and to store regional runoff.
More storage is potentially available through planned projects, provided issues related to water quality, endangered species protection and funding can be addressed. The District is also examining the feasibility of storing water north and south of the lake on District lands and sites set aside for Everglades restoration projects.
While these alternative water storage programs have shown potential, they cannot relieve the burden on the estuaries alone. For some perspective, 450,000 acre-feet of alternative storage in the watershed would potentially ease about a foot of water off the lake. Yet a single foot of rainfall in the watershed draining into the big lake can produce a four-foot rise in water level virtually overnight.
The long-term solution for reducing freshwater discharges to the estuaries from Lake Okeechobee has to include the ongoing rehabilitation of the 75-year-old earthen dike that surrounds it. The Corps of Engineers recently awarded a $40 million contract for repairs to the most vulnerable section of the Herbert Hoover Dike, a 22-mile segment between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade. Improving the integrity of the dike will enable the Corps to safely contain more water in the lake instead of sending it to the coasts.
Everglades restoration efforts also promise to substantially increase water storage to the benefit of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Over the last year, we have seen significant forward momentum on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which will eventually enable more clean water to go south to the Everglades — where it is needed. In addition, the District’s planned acquisition of 73,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar Corporation will create unprecedented opportunities to store water that were never envisioned by CERP.
The Southwest Florida residents who live, work and play on the Caloosahatchee River depend on the health of the river and its estuary. The District will continue to work with the Corps, its partners and concerned stakeholders to ensure balanced decision-making and secure permanent solutions to protect and improve our treasured ecosystem.