Lake Okeechobee Releases

Setting the Record Straight

Published Aug. 2, 2013

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated releases from Lake Okeechobee in May in an effort to control water levels as authorized under its water control plan, the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).  Since that time, a number of statements have been made that are inconsistent with the facts regarding the Corps’ water management activities. 

Current Actions
As of today (Aug. 2, 2013), the lake level is 15.86 feet NVGD, up 1.63 from July 1.  Inflows continue to outpace outflows, but the gap has started closing in recent days.  The Corps has maximized the flows to the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal as authorized by LORS.  The Corps plans to discharge at current levels until the lake level returns to the Low Operational Sub-Band as defined by LORS.  It is unknown when this will occur because the lake continues to rise, despite the releases. 

Myths & Facts
Myth:  The Corps is to blame for killing wildlife in the estuary.
Fact:  Since May 8, more water has flowed to both estuaries as a result of runoff from heavy rain than has come from the lake.  Thus, heavy precipitation in the region has done more to upset the saltwater/freshwater balance in the estuaries than the water releases. The bottom line is that the lake is at dangerously high level and rising every day, and moving water out of the lake is critically important.

Myth:  The Corps is to blame for releasing fecal-contaminated water.
Fact:  The Corps releases water from the lake in accordance with LORS, and we do share the concern about the quality of the water being released. It is important to note that the Corps has no control over the quality of water that flows into the lake; it is polluted by phosphorus from fertilizer, poorly-maintained septic systems and herbicides and pesticides from across the watershed. Water quality is a state responsibility, and the state must take action to improve the quality of water flowing into and out of Lake Okeechobee.

Myth:  The Corps has capacity north and south of the lake that isn’t being utilized.
Fact: The Corps and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) continue to work together to explore all options for lowering water levels. The SFWMD reported today that this is the wettest start to the annual wet season in 45 years, with the district-wide average rainfall for the last month at 10.36 inches. Just one inch of rain falling on one acre is equal to about 27,154 gallons of water. The SFWMD has provided 3500 acre feet of storage, which can handle only about eight hours worth of water coming in to Lake Okeechobee. We are exploring ways to increase the current minimal southern flows through the Water Conservation Areas; however we must first carefully analyze the impacts of potentially flooding Tamiami Trail and Miami-Dade County, as well as Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s concerns about wildlife impacts. We do not currently have the capability to move water through the Everglades Agricultural Area. We are years away from realizing benefits from several long-term solutions such as the C-43 Reservoir and the Central Everglades Planning Project. Public safety is the Corps’ top priority, and as such, potential impacts are constantly being evaluated in regards to how a decision in one part of the system may adversely impact another. Our partner, SFWMD, agrees: “South Florida is saturated, leaving very few places to move water as we work to keep the system prepared for the peak of the hurricane season,” said Susan Sylvester, SFWMD Chief of the Water Control Operations Bureau. “Our continual challenge with heavy rainfall is balancing flood control for 7.7 million residents while protecting the region’s wildlife and natural systems, including the Everglades.”

Myth: If the Herbert Hoover Dike (HHD) Rehabilitation Project were completed, the Corps would be able to reduce releases and hold more water in Lake Okeechobee.
Fact: While the purpose of the HHD Rehabilitation Project is to strengthen its ability to continue protecting lakeside communities, there are other considerations for how much water will be held in the lake once the project is completed. Higher lake levels adversely impact the ecology of the lake and its habitats. We will always need to regulate the level of Lake Okeechobee; the ultimate goal, however, is to increase our storage and conveyance options to do so. Water quality improvements implemented by the state will also have a positive impact.