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U.S. Army Corps resumes Lake Okeechobee releases

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Oct 16, 2020


Due to rising lake levels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releases from Lake Okeechobee on Oct. 14, sending water west into the Caloosahatchee and east into the St. Lucie estuaries.

Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he expects the releases to last approximately a month depending on the amount of rain, heat as well as other weather-related factors. The Army Corps of Engineers has been holding off on releases as long as possible but that heavy rains since August necessitated the release.

“We’ve been very deliberate,” he said. “For a while, it looked like we were going to get there. At this point, we are where we are.”

The discharges are necessary due to rising water levels at the lake, which were at about 16.25 feet on Oct 15. Kelly said the lake rose by one foot in August, 1.25 feet in September and more than a foot so far in October. The lake has risen “more quickly than we want,” Kelly said.

“There is still a significant storm threat out there,” he said, noting that the state’s hurricane season is not yet over.

The releases will be approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second of water to the west of the lake and 1,800 cubic feet per second to the east. The Army Corps of Engineers had been focusing releases south to the Everglades, but Kelly said that area is now too wet to take in all of the lake’s discharges.

“We’ve seen pretty high flows from basin runoff,” he said.

Kelly said he expects those fishing off the Caloosahatchee estuary to see impacts to oysters. He is committed to reducing and stopping the flows “as soon as we can.”

There has been concern in the past that releases from Lake Okeechobee during blue-green algae blooms could damage the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

“(The) Florida Department of Environmental Protection has done a good job of monitoring blue-green algae blooms,” Kelly said, adding that “the recent samples were very good” and the increasingly cooler water conditions has made the level of blue-green algae not “abnormally high.”

“Honestly, it has not been a bad algae year,” he said, adding conditions are better now than “in the heat of the summer.”

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Environmental Policy Director James Evans said his organization is concerned about potential impacts on oysters and seagrass due to already-low salinity levels in the lower Caloosahatchee estuary and San Carlos Bay. The SCCF has sensors throughout the estuary to keep track of the salinity levels.

Evans said he believes the Army Corps of Engineers has done a good job of holding back on its releases from Lake Okeechobee until now. With heavy rains in August and September, the freshwater releases from the lake could harm areas already overwhelmed by runoff from the watershed.

Presently, the area around Fort Myers is the worst, Evans said. Currently, the salinity levels are holding well on Fort Myers Beach, at Shell Point and in Tarpon Bay, where the SCCF has sensors.

Evans said the higher runoffs have been going on for the past 45 days and with the latest releases, that could stretch the amount of time the seagrass in the estuary can handle the additional runoff. The seagrass depends on the sun for photosynthesis and too much runoff can impact the photosynthesis process. The seagrass important for organisms that feed on it, as well as fish species which feed on those organisms and use the seagrass for cover, Evans said.

Oysters are especially vulnerable, since they do not move from the ocean floor, he said. Oysters are important in that they filter the water from harmful containments.

Evans said there is a risk that if the winter is too dry that the lake could be drawn down to a level that is too low. The rainy season is over though the hurricane season lasts into November.

“I would like to thank the Army Corps of Engineers for managing the lake levels the way they have the last two years,” he said.