Corps to resume Lake Okeechobee releases; 85 percent of flow to St. Lucie since May was local basin runoff; 73 percent of flow to Caloosahatchee River from local basin runoff

OKEECHOBEE — With Lake Okeechobee approaching 14.5 feet, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Jacksonville District will resume water releases this weekend as part of its continued efforts to manage flood risk throughout south Florida.

The discharges are necessary to protect the 36,000 people who live south of the Herbert Hoover Dike, said Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District commander. He said the dike is a defensive work to protect those people. High water levels threaten the integrity of the earthen berm which surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

On the “offensive side,” he continued, the Corps is continuing construction of the projects included in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The lake discharges are scheduled to resume Friday, July 13. The target flow for the Caloosahatchee Estuary is a 14-day average of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) as measured at Moore Haven Lock (S-77) located in the southwest part of the lake. The target flow for the St. Lucie Estuary is a 14-day average of 1,800 cfs as measured at St. Lucie Lock (S-80) near Stuart. Additional runoff from rain in the St. Lucie basin could occasionally result in flows that exceed the target.

“Over the upcoming 14-day period, we will operate with discharges slightly lower than the limits in LORS (Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule),” said Col. Kirk. “We will implement pulse releases with variable flows that simulate rainfall events in an effort to reduce some of the environmental impacts.”

Col. Kirk said most of the freshwater that has entered the coastal estuaries this year has actually been from local basin runoff.

For the Caloosahatchee, he said, since the rains started May 13, 73 percent of the freshwater flow has been local runoff with only 27 percent was from the lake releases.
Lake releases started June 1, he added.

For the St. Lucie estuary, he said, 85 percent of the freshwater flow since May 13 has been from local runoff with only 15 percent of the water coming from the lake releases.

“It is important to identify the problems. The Lake Okeechobee dynamic is a part of the problem, but let’s be clear, it’s actually a smaller part of the overall problem when we talk about estuarian health,” said Col. Kirk.

Algal blooms are a problem nationwide, he said.

“Overall the Everglades restoration initiatives create benefits to water quality, but those take time.

Algal blooms are a present day reality, he said. “It doesn’t have a quick fix.”

On Thursday the lake stage was 14.48 feet, up 1.65 feet from its 2018 low which occurred May 13. The lake stage today is the third highest for this date in the 11 years since the 2008 LORS was adopted. Under current conditions, LORS authorizes USACE to discharge up to 4,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee (measured at S-77) and up to 1,800 cfs to the St. Lucie (measured at S-80).

“Our flood-risk-management decision is informed by the fact that a major breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike threatening 37,000 people around the lake could cause consequences that include damage to homes and businesses, direct damage to structures and roads, and costs to remove water from flooded areas over many months,” said Col. Kirk.“We acknowledge the multiple challenges in this system including this summer’s extensive algal blooms. Through our federal-state dike rehabilitation and Everglades restoration efforts, along with the state and local community investments to control nutrients from the lake and adjacent waterways, we are collectively on the path to remedying these multiple challenges.”

Jacksonville District and the South Florida Water Management District continue to take additional steps at the southern end of the system to set conditions to flow as much water south as can be done safely.

Flow south through the S-12 structures under the Tamiami Trail was restricted since January by the Department of the Interior, to protect the nesting grounds of the Cape Sable Sea Sparrow. The restriction is usually January 15 through July 16. This year, flow will be allowed two days early.

“We have received permission to open the S-12 structures on July 13, which will help increase flows from the overfull Water Conservation Area 3A into Everglades National Park,” said Col. Kirk. “The Water Management District is slowing flows into the lake from the Kissimmee River and other points north, and moving as much water as they can to tide and to other storage areas at points south.”

Recent developments in Washington D.C. have also led to progress on multiple long-term projects that will give water managers more flexibility when making decisions in the future.

“Within the past 24 hours, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works has transmitted the state’s proposed Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir project to Congress,” said Col. Kirk. “In the past week, the Corps has allocated an additional $514 million in funding to accelerate completion of dike rehabilitation to 2022. We continue to turn dirt on Kissimmee River projects and the C-44 Reservoir. The state of Florida is progressing on the C-43 Reservoir among its many projects. All of these efforts represent critical measures to improve the current water management system and the environment in south Florida.”

Additionally, USACE leaders at Headquarters, South Atlantic Division in Atlanta, and Jacksonville District conferred this week on operations, hurricane season conditions, and measures to safely manage water in Lake Okeechobee and the remainder of the Central and Southern Florida Project.

“We reviewed the district-level water-management operations,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon, USACE Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations. “We are convinced that Colonel Kirk and his team, working closely with the state’s water management district, are appropriately assessing and accounting for all risks in this complex water management system.”

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is also taking additional actions to lower water levels in the conservation areas to create capacity for sending more Lake Okeechobee water south by utilizing Gov. Rick Scott’s state of emergency declaration.

The declaration of state of emergency, which follows an emergency order that Gov. Scott directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to issue on June 20, will allow SFWMD to expedite the installation of additional temporary pumps. These pumps will increase the capacity of water that can be moved out of Water Conservation Area 3B into Shark River Slough and into Everglades National Park by up to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). Additionally, numerous other permanent and temporary pumps are currently being operated by the District 24 hours a day to move more water out of the conservation areas.

The record rainfall in May caused Lake Okeechobee to rise more than a foot, which led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to begin releases from the lake on June 1 to the northern estuaries. At the same time, this record rainfall inundated the water conservation areas, causing them to rise above their regulation schedules.
Releases to the St. Lucie canal were stopped July 1-13.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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