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What is the latest update on Lake Okeechobee?

Lake Okeechobee in 2023. Releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee have resumed. SCCF /COURTESY PHOTOS

Spring is a time of change, as birds begin their migrations and estuarine species start their spawn. Vital changes also occur within the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary as waters begin to warm and the wet season looms on the horizon. In Southwest Florida, seasonal water quality is strongly tied to the health and management of Lake Okeechobee, which was artificially connected to the Caloosahatchee River and estuary within the 1800s.

When the lake gets too high, the Caloosahatchee (and the St. Lucie Estuary to the east) often receives water from the lake, which might have various impacts on the ecosystem. This 12 months, much of February and March included high-volume, damaging water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that a reduced flow volume of two,000 cubic feet per second (weekly average) will likely be sent west through the top of the dry season, barring significant changes in conditions.

Why the coasts receive water from Lake Okeechobee:
This map shows Lake Okeechobee and the water flows into the Caloosahatchee to the west and into the St. Lucie to the east. “Lake Okeechobee is a highly managed system. Its height is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using the Herbert Hoover Dike and a system of locks, canals, and dams,” said SCCF Environmental Policy Director Matt DePaolis. “The lake serves as a storage reservoir for the agriculture interests south of the lake, guaranteeing the commercial sugar production has as much water because it wants. To make sure there’s enough water in even the driest years, it’s obligatory to maintain the water within the lake much higher than it ever was naturally.”

But a very full lake in the course of the rainy season quickly turns right into a flood risk for surrounding communities. Moreover, high lake levels prevent light from reaching the submerged aquatic vegetation within the lake, hindering their growth and stopping essential filtration to the ecosystem. So, when the lake is deemed too high, the Corps releases water out of the lake, primarily to the east and west coasts via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. This lake water is polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous and may contribute to harmful algal blooms within the estuaries — sometimes directly, DePaolis said. At certain volumes, the influx of freshwater into brackish (partly salty) water may also lower salinity levels within the estuaries, which might negatively impact oysters, tape grass, and other organisms.

“Deciding when, where, and the way much Lake Okeechobee water to release is a nuanced decision-making process that involves input from diverse stakeholders,” said policy associate Allie Pecenka. “SCCF and other members of the Southwest Florida community offer evaluation and feedback in the course of the Corps’ stakeholder-engagement process, including science-based recommendations for conditions under which the Caloosahatchee estuary would remain healthiest.”

Hurricane Ian begins the trend of overly full lake:
Following Hurricanes Ian and Nicole in the autumn of 2022, Lake Okeechobee quickly filled much of the capability of the lake, and levels remained high for much of 2023. When a robust El Nino event was forecast for 2023-24 — which regularly means a wetter-than-normal dry season — SCCF began advocating for the Corps to proceed lowering the lake in anticipation of it rising further.

“From June through October, frequent rains and watershed runoff can compound Lake Okeechobee releases, introducing an abundance of excess nutrients into the Caloosahatchee and Gulf of Mexico and harming our wildlife, our communities, and our economies,” Pecenka said. “Because of this SCCF begins asking the Corps to send releases in the course of the dry season when our estuary is less vulnerable to impacts from receiving flows.”

As predicted, high levels of precipitation in the course of the dry season this 12 months further increased the peak of Lake Okeechobee — and the Corps’ requirement to lower it.

2024 releases and current status:
In mid-February 2024, the Corps decided to begin lowering the lake before the wet season by releasing water to each coasts. The Caloosahatchee has received flows of various measures from the lake since Feb. 17, with just a few transient pauses aimed to permit salinities within the estuaries to recuperate and reduce the stress on oyster populations prior to spawning.

“Local oyster communities are particularly vulnerable during spawning season within the spring, and the impacts of a disrupted spawning season can span generationally for this highly essential species,” Pecenka said. SCCF’s policy department, informed by data from our Marine Laboratory, continually engages with the Corps and other stakeholders to precise the organization’s concerns for the health of local ecosystems within the event the Caloosahatchee receives large, long-duration releases.

On April 6, the Corps resumed minimal releases to the Caloosahatchee (a median of 650 cubic feet per second) to cut back stagnant conditions conducive to blue-green algal blooms. Starting April 13, the releases were increased to a weekly average of two,000 cubic feet per second through the remaining of the dry season. While SCCF is supportive of the present release schedule, we remain concerned with the high lake stage, the efficacy of the dry season strategy to cut back lake levels, and the potential for high-volume releases this summer and fall. We ask the Corps to stay reactive to changing conditions and adjust flows as needed to support the ecological health of this method.

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