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USACE: Lake Okeechobee releases to be reduced

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Dec 18, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers announced it would begin to sharply reduce the flow from Lake Okeechobee based on readings at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam beginning on Dec. 19.

The announcement follows widespread reports of red tide in the region, which the Calusa Waterkeeper has blamed on being fostered by continuous releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Calooshatchee River since October.

The Army Corps of Engineers previously announced a reduction in flows beginning Dec. 5 targeting though due to basin runoff, the flows have continued to be above the targeted threshold.

Col. Andrew Kelly stated on Dec. 17 during a conference call with the media that the point of reading would be moved from the Moore Haven Lock & Dam (S-77) to the Franklin Lock & Dam (S-79), which is closest to the Lee County region.

The Franklin Lock & Dam is approximately 12 miles outside of Fort Myers, while the Moore Haven Lock & Dam is about 43 miles north of Fort Myers.

According to Kelly, flows into the Caloosahatchee Estuary have been averaging 4,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Caloosahatchee River.

On Dec. 5, the department began changing the flows to 3,000 cfs from the Moore Haven Lock & Dam, but basin runoff between that location and the Franklin Lock & Dam into the Caloosahatchee Estuary added about 1,500 cfs. By shifting the point of reading to Franklin Lock & Dam, the Army Corps of Engineers will be able to ensure the flows are reduced to 2,500 cfs at the point read at Franklin Lock & Dam, Kelly said.

Kelly said it is not possible to control the flows by having readings at both points.

By reducing the flows to 2,500 cfs, the Army Corps of Engineers will meet the threshold identified as the “harm level” by the Calusa Waterkeeper at 2,800 cfs.

Kelly said flows will be reduced further to 1,500 cfs after Dec. 25 and down to 1,000 cfs by Jan. 2.

The Army Corps of Engineers has had to manage the water levels at Lake Okeechobee during a rainy summer season and most recently by Hurricane Eta in November.

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani called the announcement “an improvement.” He said “the damage has already been done” to the estuary over three months of high-volume discharges from the lake.

“It will take some time to recover from this damage,” Cassani said, adding that the oysters may take a couple years to recover. “The plants can’t take that low of a salinity for that period of time.”

Since Dec. 7, there have been reports documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of red tide in noticeable concentrations on Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach and in Bonita Springs and Naples. The concentrations were highest on Captiva and in Bonita and Naples.

Fish kills have been observed off Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs and Naples.

Cassani had warned earlier this month — when the original plan was announced — that even at 3,000 cubic feet per second, the releases would still exceed the harm level.

While releases from the lake to other areas of the state will stop on Jan. 9, releases into the Caloosahatchee from the lake are still necessary since it needs water year-round, Kelly said.

The level of future releases into the Caloosahatchee will be based on consultation with “federal, state, and local partners on the best levels to maintain the ecology of the estuary,” Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Specialist Erica Skolte stated.

The South Florida Management District has been working on projects for reservoirs, which would help alleviate the pressure on estuaries from Lake Okeechobee.

It has plans for a water treatment and storage reservoir in Hendry County, known as the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir, which would divert water from the Caloosahatchee River. A message left with the communications office of the SFWMD was not immediately returned.