Army Corps says Lake O too high, releases to Caloosahatchee to grow in wake of hurricanes

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is increasing the volume of Lake Okeechobee releases to the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary, the agency announced Friday. 

Lake Okeechobee is higher than it's been on a Dec. 2 in the past 14 years, since lake discharge regulations were last updated in 2008. 

"With the recent rise of Lake Okeechobee above 16 feet we need to increase our released to 2000 cubic feet per second to the Caloosahatchee," Army Corps Col. James Booth said on a media call. "That’s still within the (estuary recovery flow range) and it’s consistent with the recommendation from the South Florida Water Management District." 

The lake was at 16.5 feet above sea level Friday, according to the South Florida Water Management District. 

Under the current regulation schedule, the Army Corps has worked to keep surface levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet to ensure water for agriculture and urbanized areas while protecting towns south of the lake from flooding. 

A new management plan, called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, is expected to be implemented this time next year. 

The 2,000-cubic-feet-per-second is the combined rate of flows coming from the upper Caloosahatchee River watershed and Lake Okeechobee discharges. 

A male snail kite perches while searching for a meal along a drainage ditch along Corkscrew Road near the new Verdana Village development in Estero recently. The mid-sized raptor is endangered and is usually seen in the Everglades and on Lake Okeechobee. Local colonies have been populating Harns Marsh and other Lee Count area including this one. At least five birds were seen in this area off of Corkscrew. Apple snails are their main diet. They prey on exotic apple snails as well.

Red algae thriving:Toxic red tide algae still thriving along Southwest coast, mostly in Sarasota, Marco waters

La Nina heats up:Hot days expected rest of the week, year as La Nina continues to influence patterns in SWFL

Ian dominated season:Just average? Deadly Ian dominated 2022 hurricane season, which otherwise was routine

More:In region of natural beauty and harmful algae blooms, FGCU celebrates new water school

That flow rate is within what government agencies have deemed healthy for the river and its estuary, which have been decimated in recent decades by poor water quality, low flows during the dry season and heavy discharges during blue-green algae outbreaks. 

This calendar had been somewhat of a rollercoaster when it comes to lake levels. They started on the low side, and the lake was a few feet lower than average just before Hurricane Ian hit on Sept. 28. 

From there the lake rose from around 12 feet to more than 15 feet, which is about average for fall. But Hurricane Nicole dumped more rain over the watersheds that flow into Lake Okeechobee, and lake levels have continued to rise into December. 

The rainy season ends in mid-October, and in most years lake levels start to recede shortly afterwards. 

But two late-season storms caused the lake to rise for six weeks past the official rainy season. 

The next rainy season starts in mid-May, and the Army Corps will work between now and then to get levels to 12.5 feet or lower. 

"We have a limited window of time to set the conditions for the dry season and the next wet season, but that may not get us to where to need to be," Booth said. 

The depth of the lake is causing harm to the submerged aquatic vegetation, which, if healthy, helps rid the waters of certain pollutants. 

"Anything over 15.5, you start getting problems," said Pay Gray, a scientist and researcher for Audubon Florida. "So we're deep into the problems."

Gray said the longer the lake stays at 15.5 feet or higher, the harm will continue. 

"In Okeechobee it's too deep for sunlight to penetrate to that depth," he said. "Our goal is to get to 40,000 acres." 

Some 5,000 acres is what it currently has.

"We think what is there is pretty resilient, though," he said.

Gray said certain ducks and wading birds aren't able to feed on the lake because they require shallow waters in which to catch fish and other critters. 

"The ducks need it to be 6 inches or less, and it's at least 18 inches all through the lake," Gray said. "It's bad for nesting birds and for the birds that are down here to find food and that applies to wading birds, too. They need water 6 inches or less and they can't use the lake either, the lake is offline for half their migratory winter period and that's not ideal." 

Booth said the Army Corps will try to keep the lake as healthy as possible while not bombing the Caloosahatchee and/or St. Lucie rivers and their estuaries. 

Both were connected to Lake Okeechobee to drain the Everglades for farming and development. 

"It’s a delicate balancing act and timing is key," Booth said. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.