Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that – at least for the time being – water flows from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River would be reduced to 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Runoff from the watershed areas downriver from the lake also decreased – to approximately 2,645 cfs. Those numbers are down considerably from a couple of months ago, when heavy rains associated with this year’s El Nino event caused as much as 9,000 cfs of brown, nutrient-polluted freshwater to be discharged into the river and estuary. The result is that seagrass and oyster beds are slowly beginning to recover and Gulf waters are once again clear and healthy, though local scientists look to the coming rainy season with a wary eye.
“The current water releases are being done in a manner that simulates a rainfall event,” said John Campbell, Public Affairs Specialist with the Corps’ Jacksonville office. “With the lake currently at 14.12 feet, it looks like we’re going to be able to maintain this level for awhile.”
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, Jacksonville District Deputy Commander for South Florida, said that irrigation needs for agricultural areas south of the lake are also contributing to the lowered releases.
“The lake levels continue to decrease,” she said. “Even though we decreased flows already, the recession rate has remained the same mostly due to the warm, dry weather which is increasing evaporation off the lake and increasing the need for water supply to the south.”
With the lake at just over 14 feet (down from a peak of 16.40 feet on February 8, 2016), lake levels are now in the ‘Low Sub-Band’ of the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) – the complex flow-chart used by the Corps in determining how much water to release to the estuaries.
“This is good news, because we are just beginning to recover from the heavy releases we had during season,” said Rae Blake, Environmental Technician for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. “Once salinity levels rise, we should see at least somewhat of an oyster spawning season. Recovery takes time, though, so we need to be patient.”
The record-breaking dry season rains were caused by a powerful El Nino weather system, which typically makes for cooler, wetter winters in Florida. That system is now beginning to fade as a La Nina system begins to take its place.
“With La Nina coming on, our rainy season may start as late as July,” said Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. “So we want to make sure we don’t drain the lake too much in case it gets too dry.”
With that in mind, Wessel and her team of local scientists are asking the Corps to ratchet down the releases even further – to 1,500 cfs – in order to keep enough freshwater coming into the estuary to maintain its health while at the same time allowing salinity levels to rise enough so it can recover.
“You don’t want the valve completely turned off because that’s bad for the estuary too,” she said. “So we’d like them to keep making low, steady pulses of water so the lake doesn’t get too low for us to have any.”
Rae Ann also cautions people not to get too excited about the clearing water that they stop demanding a solution to the back-and-forth, too-much, too-little water problems that plague us seemingly every year.
“Just because that water looks good now doesn’t mean that it’s healthy,” she said. “It takes a long time for the estuary to recover and for fish to return – we need to keep working on a solution that will allow for water storage in the wet season and nutrient-free water delivered to the estuary in the dry season.”
Keri Hendry Weeg