Lake Okeechobee water level still high, but releases within healthy threshold

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

The Caloosahatchee River is in pretty good shape going into the heart of the dry season, although more Lake Okeechobee discharges may be needed in the spring to get water levels down to a healthy level. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing around 2,000 cubic feet per day as measured at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva. That's well below the 2,800 cubic feet per second harmful threshold. 

That's the point at which too much water is entering in the Caloosahatchee River's estuary. 

"I talked with Caloosahatchee people this week, and they're happy with where it's at," said Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida. "And it's helping lower the lake." 

Gray is an expert on Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades system, which in modern times is a collection of 16 counties that stretches from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys. 

Lake Okeechobee levels are nearly 15 feet above sea level, and the Army Corps will try to get those levels down to at least 12.5 feet by the start of the rainy season in mid-May. 

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For the Caloosahatchee, higher lake levels during the dry season means there could be more releases during the summer months, when there's a higher likelihood that blue-green algae will be present on Okeechobee.  

"Unless it's a really dry spring, we're not going to get the lake low enough to protect the estuaries during the summer," Gray said. 

The health of the lake is also at stake because Hurricane Irma and other storms have ripped up submerged aquatic vegetation from the lake floor. 

That vegetation is where the largemouth bass spawn, and the bass are the backbone of the tourism industry around Okeechobee. 

"If the submerged aquatic vegetation is there and relatively healthy, you just want it to draw down to 12 feet, but it's largely not there," Gray said. "So in order to regrow that you have to get down to 11 feet to those areas where they grow. 

The U.S. Army Corps says the Caloosahatchee will continue to see healthy flows for at least the next week. Decisions on releases are typically made on weekly basis. 

An aerial view of Lake Okeechobee on Jan. 23, 2022.

"We release water to the Caloosahatchee in a seven-day pulse pattern with some days higher than the target and some days lower," said Jim Yokum, spokesman for the Army Corps, the federal agency that oversees Lake Okeechobee discharges. "The target we set is for a seven-day average of 2,000 (cubic feet per second), but you will normally see flows higher or lower than that."

Yokum said the lake releases help replace water that long ago drained off the landscape. 

"This mimics the natural flow of water to the estuary and is what stakeholders have historically recommended during our periodic scientist calls," Yokum said. "We believe we will still be very close to hitting the 2,000 (cubic feet per second) target for the seven-day average flow this week."

An aerial view of the Caloosahatchee River on Jan. 23, 2022. Some worry that if Lake Okeechobee levels aren't lowered more by rainy season, the river could get more intense water releases from the big lake.

Farmers say conditions are good for growing. They want enough water in the lake so they can access it during the dry season for crops. 

"The lake's right around 15 feet, so that's about perfect," said Gene McAvoy, with the University of Florida's agriculture extension in LaBelle. "We do want the rain during the summertime because farmers use the lake and the river. But if it's too much water going to the river, it effects the sea grass beds." 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for La Niña conditions to persist through the next several months, bringing drier, warmer conditions to South Florida. 

The dry conditions could cause the lake to fall to that magic 12.5 feet spot. 

"It really starts to drop in March, April and May," Gray said. "And that's when we'll find out how low the lake is going to do." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.