Army Corps approves releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to help west coast

— The Army Corps of Engineers announced late Friday it will order releases from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River beginning Saturday.

The releases will be in pulses to better mimic nature. They are designed to drive back saltwater that’s been creeping upstream toward Lee County’s water treatment plant at Olga, and to help flush nutrients downstream to prevent algae blooms.

The releases will average 650 cubic feet per second at Franklin Lock and are scheduled to last for nine days.

Col. Paul Grosskruger made the call after the South Florida Water Management District governing board passed on making a recommendation Thursday.

“We’re very excited,” said Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall, who attended two days of governing board meetings this week pushing them to support the releases.

Hall said that the new lake regulation schedule adopted last year was meant to give all the users all the water they needed for as long as possible, then split the adversity that’s likely to come before the rainy season.

“They’ve been talking about the environment outside of talking about the other users,” she said.

That’s what led to the elimination of releases for several days last month, said county natural resources manager Kurt Harclerode. Releases also stopped on April 5, and the salinity at the Olga treatment plant has risen steadily since.

“We’ve had eight days with no releases,” Harclerode said. “And we made it very clear to them that indecision was the same as deciding no releases.”

Instead, the river will likely get a large pulse on Saturday to wash the salt downstream, followed by smaller ones to keep it there.

That salinity likely spurred Grosskrugers decision. When salt content hit 200 parts per million Friday, it triggered restrictions on using the locks. That, Harclerode said, meant environmental damage, water supply problems and navigational issues all at once.

Hall said it was the situation and the factual information that drove the releases.

“The board said to just let the staff give their technical information to the Corps, and that bodes well,” she said. “The situation with them (South Florida Water Management District board members) sitting in a public meeting and talking about cutting off only one user was inappropriate.”

In fact, agriculture users are receiving full water allocations from the lake, and east coast users are on watering restrictions less strict than those in use in Lee County year-round.

Hall said she doesn’t see managing the lake as an east-versus-west contest or as the coasts versus the inland agriculture users.

“I don’t appreciate the district putting us in that position,” she said. “When they talk like that in a public meeting that’s exactly what they do.”

Harclerode said if the pulse releases continue until the rainy season, or until lake elevation triggers water shortage measures, it will take less than three inches off the lake. That, he said, is less than evaporation will take away during the same period.

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