OKEECHOBEE — The wettest January since record keeping started in 1932 and one of the wettest “dry” seasons on record, has U.S. Army Corps of Engineers juggling concerns about decreased salinity in the coastal estuaries with the threat of a breach in the Herbert Hoover Dike.
The Corps announced Thursday that they will continue to release water into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie Lagoon to try to halt the rise of Lake Okeechobee — which is about three feet higher than the normal level for this time of year.
“We’re looking at a wet, dry season all the way through April,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, Deputy District Commander for South Florida.
“Not only is Lake Okeechobee high — currently at 16.32 feet — all of the water conservation areas, water treatment areas, the canals are all high,” she said.
There is nowhere else for the water to go, except to send it to tide.
South of Lake Okeechobee, Water Conservation Area 2 (WCA2) is more than 2 feet above its schedule and still rising.
Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA3) is more than a foot above its schedule and still rising.
The high water levels south of the big lake have drawn concern for the safety of the wildlife in the WCAs and in Everglades National Park.
“The focus is to reverse the rising trend (in the WCAs) first; then explore capacity to move water south from Lake Okeechobee,” Lt. Col. Reynolds explained.
“We are at stages that are the highest stages we have seen since the 1960s,” she said.
For this reason, they will continue “maximum practical releases” from the lake to the east and west.
Last week, flows at the lock at Moore Haven averaged 5-6000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The maximum potential release is up to 9,300 cfs but that would only happen if the lake were over 18 ft. she said.
In 2013, the peak flows at Moore Haven were 8,000 cfs.
She said they anticipate continued flows at 6,000 cfs.
The lake flows into the St. Lucie at Port Mayaca averaged 3,000 cfs over the past week. In 2013, the peak flow was 4,600 cfs.
Lt. Col. Reynolds said that in the past few days for the first time since December, the outflows from the lake were equal to the inflows.
“The rainfall has a tremendous effect on the level of the lake,” she said. The Kissimmee River basin also drains into Lake Okeechobee.
“Right now, even though we hope to not have significant rainfall over the lake in the next seven days,” she explained, “this is our chance to get some of the water out of the lake before we see rainfall over the lake.”
She said the El Nino rainfall in 1998 continued through the month of March and into the month of April.
She said they are concerned they could see similar rainfall to 1998.
The integrity of the earthen Herbert Hoover Dike is endangered by high lake levels, as the water pressure builds up along the south side of the dike.
The Corps is currently conducting weekly inspections.
Problem areas are rated:
• Condition 1 – saturated soil;
• Condition 2 – standing water;
• Condition 3 – clear water seeps;
• Condition 4 – muddy water seeps.
Clear water seeps indicate the water is making its way through the dike.
Muddy water seeps show the water is erroding the dike.
The most recent inspections found two areas at condition 1; one area at condition 2; and four condition 3, clear water seeps.
All of the seeps are on the south side of the lake.
She said they are working with state and federal partners to explore any options available.
Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org