The Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin reducing the amount of water being released in from Lake Okeechobee this weekend, possibly mitigating some of the impact on water quality in Southwest Florida.
Record rains in May prompted proactive releases from the lake in hopes of increasing water management capacity in case a tropical storm or hurricane were to bring additional precipitation like Irma did in September of 2017, according to John Campbell with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“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.”
Campbell said that the engineers generally try to keep water levels at 12.5 to 15.5 feet in elevation. Lake Okeechobee was at around 14.2 after the heavy rains of May, with the Corps targeting a release of about 4,000 000 cubic feet of water per second out of the Moore Haven spillway, which feeds into the Caloosahatchee. With the lake now at 14.05 feet, the new target for releases will be reduced to 3,000 cubic feet per second.
“The discharges over the past three weeks have stopped the rise in the lake,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander for the Army Corps in a release on Thursday. “Inflows have also slowed since late May. Based on current conditions, the guidance under the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule calls for reduced flows.”
The amount of water released from the lake raises concerns around the state due to its possible environmental impact. Releases from Lake Okeechobee can disrupt the delicate balance of fresh and saltwater in estuaries downstream and impact the water quality in popular tourist areas including Southwest Florida beaches.
Governor Rick Scott got involved with the issue on Wednesday, directing Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein to issue an emergency order urging the USACE to redirect the flow of water out of Lake Okeechobee to the south.
“Two years ago, we saw the devastating impact of releases from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and estuaries which caused widespread algal blooms and led to the declaration of a state of emergency in four counties,” said Scott in a release on Wednesday.
“With this order, and the cooperation of the Army Corps and other federal agencies, the State will continue to work to mitigate and minimize the impacts of algal blooms we witnessed in the past. We will continue to fight to secure federal action and urge the federal government to authorize the EAA Reservoir and fully fund the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs.”
Scott, along with other Florida politicians like Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, have been pushing for additional federal funding to help speed repairs on the dike which surrounds the southern half of Lake Okeechobee. A commitment to accelerate repairs form the Trump administration along with $50 million in additional funding from the state legislature is expected to move up the completion date from 2025 to 2022 according to Campbell.
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