The feast-or-famine rain patterns so typical for south Florida are again on display.
An extended period of dry weather since Hurricane Matthew in October has caused the water level in Lake Okeechobee to steadily recede over the past six months. This, in sharp comparison to last year’s dry season that contained some of the wettest months ever recorded in the region.
“2016 was a challenging year,” said Luis Alejandro, Water Management Section Chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. “Despite the amount of water we saw go through the system last year, we feel fortunate that there was no loss of life and no major damage to property from flooding.”
Unusually heavy rain, fueled by an El Nino weather pattern, caused the lake to rise rapidly during the early part of 2016. The lake hit a high of 16.4 feet on February 8 of last year, the highest stage since the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Although the water level started to fall during the spring, it only receded to 13.6 before wet-season rains started taking the lake on an upward trend.
“The amount of water that flowed into the lake would have covered the entire state of Delaware in two feet of water,” said Alejandro.
Since last fall, the trend has been much different. Little significant rain has occurred since Hurricane Matthew cruised up the Atlantic Coast in October. On May 1, the stage at the lake was down to 11.61 feet, the lowest since the summer of 2012.
“The weather patterns we’ve seen over the past two years are typical for south Florida,” said Alejandro. “In the past, we’ve seen extended periods of very wet weather followed by extended periods of very dry weather. We do our best to operate the system to capture as much water as we can during wet times so that it’s available for dry times.”
Water in Lake Okeechobee is managed through a plan that aims to keep the water level in the lake in the preferred range of 12.5 to 15.5 feet. The plan, known as the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (2008 LORS), considers the current lake level, the time of year, how much water is flowing into the lake, and historical averages on how much water is likely to enter the lake in the coming months. Jacksonville District staff use information in LORS as the basis for their water management decisions.
“We have to balance multiple project purposes,” said Alejandro. “Our top priority is public health and safety for people living and working around the lake. Other project purposes include managing the lake for water supply, enhancement of the environment, navigation, recreation, and others.”
Information on water flows into and out of Lake Okeechobee and throughout a variety of structures in south Florida can be found on the Jacksonville District website at http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Water-Management/.