Jacksonville Commander announces Lake Okeechobee Wet Season Strategy

Jacksonville District
Published June 27, 2023
Jacksonville District

59th Commander Jacksonville District

The start of the wet season is a key moment in any water year, and it is here for 2023.  We have seen the weather shift into wet season patterns across south Florida and over Lake Okeechobee.  When the system is in a transition, we work together to assess the current system conditions, look back at what’s happened, and evaluate trends moving forward.  Let’s review the 2022-2023 dry season and outline our strategy for the 2023 wet season.

During the dry season, our collaborative approach with our partners at the South Florida Water Management District was to use water “banked” in Lake Okeechobee to send the water to the northern estuaries and the Everglades as needed while meeting the needs of water supply users and helping Lake Okeechobee’s spring recession.  We were able to make approximately 125,000 ac-ft of releases over what the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS 2008) called for by utilizing the banked make-up releases from last fall. These releases allowed us to lower the lake from 16.3 to 13.7 feet NGVD over time while maintaining beneficial releases.  This strategy allowed downstream estuary salinities to remain in optimal ranges through the majority of the dry season and yielded record-breaking Everglade Snail Kite nesting on the lake and healthy oyster spat in the estuaries.

Lake Okeechobee enters the wet season just below 14 feet NGVD, which is higher than most recent years. As we look forward, this higher level means there is an increased risk of lake stages entering the upper bands of LORS 2008 even under normal rainfall and inflows. Right now, we are seeing an increased risk of above normal rainfall for the next several months and have already begun to see water levels rise from their low point in late May. LORS 2008 includes multiple sub-bands within the Operational band which help to outline releases from the lake. If lake stages rise into the upper sub-bands of the Operational Band and into the High Lake Management Band, we would have minimal flexibility to pause or delay releases.

We are also beginning to see the freshwater algal bloom season kickoff throughout the system and have already seen some algae on Lake Okeechobee and at some of the lock and dams along the Okeechobee Waterway. Based on my conversations with our federal and state partner agencies who lead water quality, there is an increased risk of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee due to Hurricane Ian and the resulting water quality conditions. If a risk to the public associated with algal blooms in lake releases is determined, we may pause or delay releases this wet season. We will assist the state in its efforts to monitor algae by collecting data at Corps structures to provide information on Blue-Green Algae directly to the state in real-time to support their research and algae mitigation efforts. We will continue to work closely with our partners to share observations, discuss risk associated with algal blooms, and collaborate on this complex issue which is plaguing our waterways.

Our wet season strategy is to manage Lake Okeechobee by making beneficial releases to downstream environments and water users for as long as possible while considering system conditions and communicating with our partners and stakeholders.  As in the past, I will make release decisions regularly -- usually weekly. I will base my decisions on our weekly evaluation of the lake stage in context of where we are in the season, both the short- and long-range forecasts locally and in the Atlantic, the status of algae on the lake and in the estuaries, ecological conditions throughout the system, and all the information gathered from our partners and stakeholders.

While I can’t promise that there won’t be high releases later this year due to the inherent uncertainty of Mother Nature, we will do our best to avoid them if possible.  I can promise transparency and open communication with all our stakeholders, so we make the best-informed decisions based on real-time conditions. We will continue holding our Periodic Scientist Calls, while coordinating with the South Florida Water Management District, and inform state, tribal, and local officials about any release decisions before we execute them whenever possible. We will hold these weekly media calls throughout the wet season and publish my decisions in press releases.

Throughout this wet season our operations will be governed by LORS.  Looking ahead to our new plan, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), we will continue to collaborate with our partners at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to complete the Environmental Impact Statement for LOSOM by late 2023. We are already looking to LOSOM for inspiration as we approach our strategy this year and will continue to utilize the flexibility under LORS 2008 to manage Lake Okeechobee consistent with its Congressionally authorized project purposes.