Record May rainfall leading to current Lake O releases

Lee Herald Favicon 16Releases from Lake Okeechobee are being used to stay ahead of possible tropical storms after a record setting month of rain in May left water levels higher than anticipated according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

A dry spell that had fueled brush fires in Collier County quickly gave way to unprecedented rainfall in May, causing the levels of Lake Okeechobee to rise rapidly.

“This past month was the wettest May on record and has resulted in a significant increase in levels within the water conservation areas south of Lake Okeechobee,” said South Florida Water Management District Chief Engineer John Mitnik. “We are taking every step available to the District to move that local rainfall out of our flood control system in order to create capacity to take water from the lake while still protecting residents and wildlife.”

The lake rose from its lowest point of the year, 12.8 feet, to 14.2 feet after the rains according to John Campbell with the Army Corps of Engineers, who said that the lake is generally kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. Releases began on June 1 to help slow the rise, with the Corps having a target of about 4,000 cubic feet of water per second out of the Moore Haven spillway, which distributes water into what eventually becomes the headwater for the Caloosahatchee River. Around 1,400 cubic feet per second is sent east down the Saint Lucie River.

“It’s been steady over the last week, which suggests that the inflows and outflow are starting to equalize,” said Campbell.

Despite falling in between the prescribed water levels, engineers started releasing water from the lake because a large amount of capacity is required to deal with major storms that can pop up during hurricane season, Campbell said. After Hurricane Irma last September, Lake Okeechobee went from 13.6 feet to 17.2 feet in just a few days. Personnel start checking the Herbert Hoover Dike around Okeechobee for damage at around 16 feet.

“With those heavy rain events at the end of May, we lost any storage we would have had for any future storm event like tropical storms,” said Campbell. “It just really leaves us open to any water management challenges that might come from a tropical system.”

Engineers tend to be careful with the frequency of releases due to their possible environmental impact. Estuaries downstream, habitats with a mix of salt and fresh water, are a delicate balance and can be damaged when a large influx of water comes from the lake. That damage can flow into the Gulf of Mexico and impact Southwest Florida beaches as well.

Repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee are ongoing with about $800 million left undone. Increased pressure from politicians like Governor Rick Scott, Senator Bill Nelson, and Senator Marco Rubio have seen increased funding both on a federal and state level. Campbell said that the funding increase has moved the projected completion date for the repairs from 2025 to 2022. Those repairs are aimed at reducing the risk of flooding, however, and not actually increasing the capacity of water management or necessarily reducing the amount of releases. A number of state and federal organizations will be involved in ongoing studies and dialogues to determine if more flexibility can be found in water management for the lake over the next few years.

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