The sparkling clear water islanders are currently enjoying in the Gulf is probably not going to last very much longer as above-average water levels in Lake Okeechobee have caused the Army Corp of Engineers to double the amount of water being released from the lake. Corps officials also informed media via a conference call last Thursday afternoon not to expect much relief in the coming wet season either, as the rainy El Nino winter has resulted in nearly all potential water storage areas to be filled to capacity. In one bright spot of good news, however, Lt. Col. Reynolds did say that an emergency program to send water south – enacted in February – was successful and the Corps plans to work with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to find a way to make it much larger.
“Lake levels are up ¾ of a foot from what they were just one week ago – we are now at 14.38”, and it’s only May 26,” said Corps Public Affairs Specialist John Campbell. “The rain that’s fallen over the center part of the state during the last week has greatly influenced the lake. The recession in lake level that began in March has ceased, and I don’t think we’ll see the lake get any lower the rest of this year.”
The new target flow for the Caloosahatchee is 4,000 cubic feet per second
(cfs) as measured at Moore Haven Lock & Dam (S-77) located on the southwest
side of the lake. The new target flow for the St. Lucie is 1,800 cfs as
measured at St. Lucie Lock & Dam (S-80) near Stuart. Additional runoff from
rain in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river watersheds could occasionally result in flows that exceed the target.
“This increase in outflows, guided by the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation
Schedule (LORS), will help slow the rise in the lake and better position us for
tropical conditions which may develop in the coming days,” explained Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander.
At 14.38 feet, the lake is in the upper half of the Corps’ preferred range of elevation of 12.5-15.5 feet.
“What happened was – with El Nino’s excessive rains during the months when it’s normally dry – we’ve already had the equivalent of an above-average wet season this year and the wet season hasn’t even started yet,” Campbell said. “The last time lake levels were this high on this date was in 2010, and the prediction is that by June 1st we’ll be starting the wet season with the highest lake level in a decade.”
Campbell said that the biggest problem the Corps is facing as we head into the summer rainy months is the fact that most storage areas are already at or near capacity.
“The Kissimmee lakes north of Lake Okeechobee are either at their regulation levels or slightly above when normally they are way down at this time of year,” he said. “So we’re not seeing any draw down there. There’s just not a lot of storage anywhere.”
Campbell and Kirk were joined by Deputy District Commander Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Reynolds, who explained that inflows to the lake were at 10,000 cfs, with outflows only at 750 cfs.
“At that level, the lake will rise at a rate that we cannot maintain throughout hurricane season,” she said.
“While we always consider estuarine health in our analysis, the start of
hurricane season has our team particularly focused on maintaining
the safe holding capacity of Lake Okeechobee,” Kirk added. “The increased
flows will assist in meeting that critical objective.”
We asked Reynolds about the status of an emergency action taken back in February that allowed water to flow south out of Water Conservation Area 3, through the S-333 gate, along the L-29 canal (which runs parallel to the northern edge of the Tamiami Trail in the eastern part of the Everglades), under the newly raised section of the Trail and into Shark River Slough – essentially ‘pulling the plug at the bottom of the system’ for the first time.
“We are still moving water south into Everglades National Park (ENP) though the 90-day trial run of that ‘emergency deviation’ has ended,” Reynolds replied. “What happened was, in October of last year we instituted a planned deviation called Increment One – which is part of the MOD Waters (Modified Water Deliveries) project. It allowed us to relax the regulation schedule for northeastern Shark River Slough and send more water into the slough. Then, in February, we worked out another deviation that increased the allowable water level in the L-29 canal so we could move even more water south, and move it faster.”
Reynolds explained that the Corps has now returned to the October deviation while they undergo a 60-day ‘recovery period’ to see how well the park fared with the extra water.
“During this time, we are also evaluating ways we can work with the District to find optimal leverage within the system to send even more water south – especially considering the rainy months to come,” she said. “So that’s good news, because from what we’re hearing from people who have spent years in the park, the water there is now higher than it’s been since the 1960’s and they’re very happy about that.”
Concluding the conference, Campbell told us that Corps would continue to monitor conditions and adjust flows as necessary. For more information on water level and flows data for Lake Okeechobee, visit the Corps’ water management website at bit.ly/LakeOArmyCorps
Keri Hendry Weeg