With the end of hurricane season and the approach of drier weather, the Army Corps of Engineers will be reducing fresh water releases downstream from Lake Okeechobee.
Hurricane Irma brought heavy rains with it when it made landfall in September, raising the lake to a peak of 17.2 feet above sea level. The Corps prefers to keep the water level between 12.5 and 15.5 for safety reasons. The dryer weather has allowed engineers to reduce the volume of releases into the Caloosahatchee River from 4.2 billion gallons a day to 2.5 billion a day.
“Given that we’re at the end of hurricane season, going into dry season, the probability of precipitation is lower now. Our concern is still that we have an elevated lake,” said John Campbell, a spokesperson for the Corps.
Campbell explained that while the Corps is encouraged to see the water levels fall, they will continue to inspect the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds the lake, for damage as long as the water stays above 16 feet.
“We had been above 16 [feet] for the better part of five years,” said Campbell. “It’s still a relatively high lake. We would like to have it go down and dryer weather will certainly help with that.”
Governor Rick Scott has been pushing President Donald Trump and both state a federal legislatures to commit the funds necessary to speed repairs to the aging dike, which the White House said has been identified to be at a high risk of failure since the early 2000s. Trump committed to accelerating the repairs, but Congress must still fund the project.
In the meantime, at least some level of fresh water will have to be released in order to keep the lake at an acceptable level, which can cause damage to delicate estuaries downstream and contribute to algae blooms that create red tide. Lee County beaches have started to see the beginnings of red tide earlier this week.
According to Campbell, engineers do take into account factors like red tide when deciding the volume of water released, but the safety of those living around Lake Okeechobee comes first.
“We manage the water in the lake so that we are reducing the risk for people who live around Lake Okeechobee,” said Campbell. “Getting the water level down is a bigger factor. As the lake gets closer to our preferred range then we can start looking at some of the impacts in terms of red tide.”
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