BlogfeaturedThe Latest Updates on Lake Okeechobee Releases

November 19, 2020
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Page last updated: February 2021

Current Situation

The US Army Corps Jacksonville District (Corps) activated high-volume Lake Okeechobee releases on October 14, 2020 after heavy rains resulted in a nearly 1.5-foot rise in the lake over a 30 day period.

For 3 months, high volumes of Lake O water were discharged to the east and west coasts via the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers.

On January 8, 2021, the Corps announced that it had finished its transition to dry season operations on Lake Okeechobee, ceasing releases to the St. Lucie and reducing target flows to the Caloosahatchee to 1,000 cfs. These low-level dry season releases aim to manage lake levels over time while also providing beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

Corps Announces Dry Season Plan

On January 29, the Corps announced a plan for dry season flows—the target flow to the Caloosahatchee Estuary will increase to a 7 day average pulse release of 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and zero water will be released to the St. Lucie.

The agency’s desired lake level is 12.5 feet, however, they project it could be 14 feet by the end of the dry season on June 1. With the lake elevation currently above 15 feet, a significant weather could result in more discharges in the near future.

“The lake is still high for this time of year,” said Kelly “As a result, we believe this is the time to start additional releases as authorized by the deviation, previously approved in 2020, which allows us to increase releases now to provide increased flexibility to hold back in the summer when the risk of algae in the lake is much greater.”

YOU CAN HELP BY TAKING ACTION

Current Issue: Demand operational flexibility in new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM)
  • The Army Corps manages lake operations based on outdated rules that benefit special interests at the expense of all others including coastal estuaries, the Everglades, public health and drinking water supply for millions.
  • The Army Corps is rewriting the rules and they must be a win-win for everyone.
  • We must urge the Army Corps to include a management strategy that lowers the lake in the dry season to create capacity for rainfall in the rainy season.
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Take Action

The longterm solution is to restore the flow of water south. In the meantime, flexible lake management by the Army Corps can provide short-term benefits and relief. Urge the Army Corps to lower the lake in the dry season to create capacity on the lake for rainfall in the rainy season. This will reduce harmful releases of Lake Okeechobee water to Florida’s coasts and send the water to the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed. Please take action today.

LATEST UPDATES

The Captains’ Take

On January 8, 2021, the Army Corps Jacksonville District announced that it had finished its transition to dry season operations on Lake Okeechobee. The target release schedule as of that announcement was:

  • 1,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee
  • Ceasing releases to the St. Lucie

The Caloosahatchee requires minimum flows of 500-1,000 cfs during dry season to help maintain salinities in the upper estuary. Water managers established 2,800 cfs as the high-flow ecological harm threshold for the estuary. During the 2018 water crisis, flows to the Caloosahatchee reached ~7,800 cfs at times.

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Video Updates From the Captains
  • 12/3/20 Update from the Franklin Lock, relief in sight as Corps begins reducing flows out of Lake O
  • 10/30/20 Are we nearing the end of Lake O discharges?
  • 10/20/20 Discharge update from the Franklin Lock
  • 10/13/20 Releases begin; live update from the Franklin Lock
  • 10/12/20 Lake Okeechobee Q&A with the Captains

1/29/21 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: USACE announces plan for dry season flows to Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee

1/8/21 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: USACE finishes transition to Lake Okeechobee dry season operations

12/11/20 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: Jacksonville District continues Lake Okeechobee Release Reductions

12/3/20 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: Corps to start reducing flows out of Lake Okeechobee

11/19/20 WINK News, Stephanie Byrne
Lake Okeechobee water releases will continue to come to Southwest Florida

11/13/20 TCPalm, Tyler Treadway
Lake Okeechobee level rising, discharges continue to St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee rivers

10/29/20 News-Press, Amy Bennett Williams
Federal judge rules Corps must change its ways when discharging Lake O water to Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie

10/19/20 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: Corps announces approval of a planned deviation from Lake O Regulation Schedule to reduce risk from Harmful Algal Blooms

10/16/20 Captains For Clean Water
Operational flexibility, a critical tool to lessen harmful discharges

10/14/20 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District
News Release: Army Corps of Engineers announces Lake Okeechobee Releases

FAQS ABOUT LAKE OKEECHOBEE RELEASES

Q: Why does water get released from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers? 

A: The short answer – releases (also referred to as discharges) happen when the lake gets too high. This is a common concern during rainy season (June-November). There are many factors that influence the decision to start releasing. 

The US Army Corps of Engineers manages lake operations based on an outdated set of rules that dictate where water goes (and doesn’t go), when, and why. The current manual prioritizes the needs of special interests (industrial agriculture) over the needs of the public. 

A new manual, called Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), is being rewritten and we’re pushing for it to take into account the needs of all water users and Florida’s 21st century economy. Email the Army Corps your comments regarding the new lake release schedule: LakeOComments@usace.army.mil. Ask them to lower the lake in the dry season to create capacity on the lake for rainfall in the rainy season. 

Q: We can’t have another crisis like we saw in 2016 and 2018. How do we stop the harmful discharges? 

A: We need to restore the historical flow of Lake O water, sending it south to be stored, cleaned, and flowed to the Everglades and Florida Bay where it’s desperately needed.

Q: Why can’t we send the water south now? 

A: There are barriers to flow (such as roads and dams) and lack of infrastructure (reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas). There is a plan, but the government works very slow to fix the issues and complete critical projects.

Q: How do we send the water south, then?

A: The solution is called Everglades restoration, as approved by Congress in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000. CERP is a framework for restoring, protecting and preserving the greater Everglades ecosystem (Orlando to the Florida Keys). The plan is a 50-50 partnership between the State of Florida and the federal government.

Q: How long will it take to complete Everglades restoration and finally send the water south? 

A: Not quick enough. Since authorized in 2000, not one of CERP’s 68 projects has been completed; stagnated due to lack of political will and lack of public engagement. With the 2016 and 2018 water crises, this changed significantly as the public became heavily involved in demanding clean water. 

Less than 48 hours after taking office, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a historic executive order entitled Achieving More Now For Florida’s Environment that focused on accelerating key water quality and Everglades restoration projects. 

The EAA Reservoir project and STA will provide the greatest benefit to the entire system, reducing harmful discharges and sending water south. Captains For Clean Water and other conservation groups advocate for this critical project to be expedited and completed prior to the scheduled completion in 2028.

Q: That’s a long time. What can be done immediately to reduce or stop harmful discharges?

A: Flexible lake management by the Army Corps of Engineers. In 2019 (after the toxic summer of 2018), the Corps used operational flexibility to release small amounts of Lake O water in the dry season (when harmful algae blooms aren’t as likely), creating more capacity in the lake for rainfall in the wet season. This proved successful and we were able to enjoy a few years of beautiful water without releases from Lake O. 

Q: Great! If lake management helps, then why are we getting releases at all??

A: Lake management will not solve the problem. It only lessens it temporarily. The lake is over 16 feet (12-15 feet is the range considered safe), all available storage areas are over capacity, and there’s nowhere else for the water to go.

Q: What is the current status of algae blooms in Lake O? 

A: Visit DEP’s website protectingfloridatogether.gov and click “Water Quality Status” in the top right corner.

Q: How can we help? 

A: Use your voice and speak up regarding water quality issues and everglades restoration projects. Email the Army Corps your comments regarding the new lake release schedule: LakeOComments@usace.army.mil. Ask them to lower the lake in the dry season to create capacity on the lake for rainfall in the rainy season.

Q: What’s the current position and ask of Captains For Clean Water?

A: 1) For the Army Corps and LOSOM to take into account operational flexibility (lowering Lake O in the dry season) and the needs of all water users. The current management works for special interests, but needs to work for the public interests, too. 2) Expedite Everglades restoration projects at the state and federal level. 3) Clean, store, and send the water south. Every project we move forward with should replicate the historic system.

MISCONCEPTIONS & MISINFORMATION

The Everglades needs water so a lower lake means less water for the Glades and drinking water supply.

Water is currently prioritized in other places. The EAA was still pulling over 3,000 cubic feet per second during this time for agriculture. Most of the water is used as irrigation for sugarcane fields, not public use or being sent to the Everglades. There needs to be a priority to the ecosystem and public over private business and industries. 

A higher lake is better, there’s more water for the Everglades.

There are no benefits to a higher lake except water supply to industrial agriculture. A higher lake worsens the ecology in the lake and kills the plants and grasses. You have to look at the system as a whole, not just one part of it.

Why does the west coast receive twice as much discharge as the east coast?

This is a narrative by special interests intended to divide and confuse: “West coast gets more water because east coast is rich.” The St. Lucie is smaller, narrower, has less tidal flow and can’t handle as much water. The Caloosahatchee is a much bigger canal and can handle more water and there is more tidal flow to allow the water to move. 

Why don’t you store and clean water north of the lake before it enters the lake? 

Storage north of the lake via ASR wells or deep injection wells are projects pushed by special interests who want to see the lake kept artificially high. The wells would be used to inject polluted water underground into the aquifers, but the repercussions of the suggested use of these technologies are unknown. They are too risky, too costly, and have no restoration benefits. 

HELPFUL RESOURCES

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Water Quality Status

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is collaborating with other key agencies to monitor and report on water conditions, starting with some areas at greatest risk, to keep you informed on water quality and what you can do.

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Lake Okeechobee Current Conditions

View current water levels and flow data for Lake Okeechobee and the water conservation areas (WCAs).

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SFWMD Daily Emails

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is launching daily emails to provide updates on Lake Okeechobee discharges by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. SFWMD is actively working to reduce Lake Okeechobee levels and shorten the duration of these harmful discharges.

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Algal Bloom Dashboard

An interactive dashboard featuring real-time sampling updates for cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Florida.