As residents nervously watch the Weather Channel for news of what has now become Tropical Storm Hermine, local environmentalists and business owners – weary of dealing with the repercussions from the seemingly never-ending releases of brown, nutrient-polluted water from Lake Okeechobee – watch and worry that Hermine’s rains will cause the Army Corps of Engineers to fully open the gates at Moore Haven Lock, sending billions of gallons more lake water downriver, threatening the tourists that remain. They can breathe a little easier – on Wednesday afternoon, we spoke with John Campbell, Public Affairs Specialist for the Corps Tallahassee office, and he told us that there are no plans to increase the releases due to Hermine.
“The lake has risen slightly over the last week, so inflows have increased a bit, but nothing consistent with events we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “So right now the releases will remain the same as they’ve been for several weeks now.”
Campbell says that – unless something drastically changes – the Corps will announce in its Thursday afternoon weekly report that the releases will remain the same as what was announced last week – 2,800 cubic feet per second (cfs).
“Drier conditions and a change toward normal precipitation in the long-term multi-seasonal outlook has caused a shift in guidance under the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which now calls for lower releases from the lake,” he said. “With the current forecast and high probability of heavy rain, the Corps will use additional operational flexibility contained in LORS to continue the release of water at current rates.”
After Hermine officially became a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 42 counties from Pasco County – just north of Tampa – to Gulf County in Florida’s panhandle. The storm is expected to hit just west of the Big Bend area sometime Thursday afternoon and travel across that part of the state to Georgia – all of which puts it north of the Kissimmee River Basin, where water flow to the lake begins.
2,800 cfs is right on the edge of the harm threshold for our back bay estuary. Scientists recommend that the Corp maintain releases between 650cfs and 2,800 for optimal conditions for the seagrass and oyster beds that serve as nurseries for many species of fish, shrimp and crabs.
The blue-green algae problem seems to have largely gone away, too. Last week, Lee County’s Environmental Lab found no traces of it in the upper estuary, and only slight traces upriver at the water treatment plant in Olga.
At the offices of the Beach Chamber of Commerce, Chairman Dave Anderson said that local businesses are fielding far fewer calls these days from people complaining about water quality.
“The biggest thing that’s happening to businesses right now is people are calling to cancel because they think we’re going to get hit by a hurricane,” he said. “So I’m telling them to watch local news reports only and to check out our beachside webcams. The water itself seems to be doing okay right now.”
In other water-related news, the Corps released a statement on Wednesday morning that a key report authorizing additional, expedited work on the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover dike has been finalized.
“We now have a definitive plan for completing rehabilitation of the dike,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District commander. “Our report shows dike rehabilitation is about half complete. Now we must continue pressing forward to finish the job.”
Kirk goes on to say that Congressional appropriations of more than $870 million since 2001 have enabled the Corps to execute the administration-priority mission by constructing a 21-mile partial cutoff wall and starting replacement of 19 water control structures.
“The Corps plans to install another 35 miles of cutoff wall between Belle Glade and Lakeport along the south and west portions of the dike. The Corps also plans to armor the embankment at a bridge on State Route 78 and construct floodwalls at two water control structures on the north side of the lake. The estimated cost of the remaining work is about $830 million, bringing total costs for the program to approximately $1.7 billion.”
“Completion of work identified in the plan will significantly decrease the risk of dike failure as we manage water levels under the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule. We recognize the desire to revisit the regulation schedule, and completion of this work may open up some additional flexibility in our operations.”
The Corps anticipates starting a study on changes to the regulation schedule in 2022 that will ensure results are available by the time dike rehabilitation is complete on the south side of the structure, currently forecast in 2025. This is consistent with the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) used by the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration program.
“Completion of rehabilitation doesn’t necessarily enable additional capacity to hold water in the lake,” said Kirk. “It’s possible we may get some flexibility in how we manage lake water, but we will need to review proposed water management plans and assess potential impacts on the dike as part of any future study.”
Keri Hendry Weeg