“The lake finally dropped below 12.6.”
That’s some of the best news being reported by Jacksonville District Water Management Section Chief Jorge Tous as he looks at the past 12 months, which saw Lake Okeechobee rise as high as 16.05 feet Aug. 10, 2013 and drop to a 20-month low of 12.30 feet June 12, 2014.
“The lower level is healthy for the lake, from an ecology standpoint, and from a water management standpoint,” said Tous. “It helps to have the extra storage capacity this year that we didn’t have in 2013.”
An early start to the wet season in 2013 kept the lake from dropping below 13 feet – its lowest point last year was 13.29 feet on May 27. The loss of water storage capacity became evident when the lake started rising, and the district was left with little choice but to discharge the water in case a tropical system developed that would result in additional heavy rains.
“In 2012, Tropical Storm Isaac caused the lake to rise three-and-a-half feet in a span of six weeks,” said Tous. “We have to constantly maintain storage for the lake during the wet season, because the water level can rise much faster than our ability to lower it.”
The district bases its water control operations on the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). The schedule calls for gradual lowering of levels during the dry season, generating additional storage capacity for heavy rains in the wet season. The water retained in the wet season can be used to supplement the water needs of various stakeholders.
“One of the big challenges in managing this system is attempting to balance the multiple purposes of water in the lake, some of which compete with each other,” said Tous. “Sometimes, it puts the district in a tough position, but the guidance provided by LORS helps ensure consistency in our water management decisions.”
Early forecasts have called for a below-average hurricane season in the Atlantic. However, forecasters continue to monitor the Pacific for the development of El Niño this summer and fall.
“The below average hurricane forecast comes with a price,” said Tous. “El Niño could result in a dry season that has precipitation that is much greater than normal. We are thinking about that and getting prepared.”
If anything can be said about water management, it’s that one storm can completely change the tone of the conversation, as was evidenced with heavy rain events in 2011 and 2012.
“In 2011, we were looking at finishing the wet season with the lake just above 11 feet, which is very low,” said Tous. “Then we had the big rain event over Columbus Day weekend that moved the lake to a level just under 14 feet, allowing us to supplement water supplies on a limited basis for the rest of the year. Tropical Storm Isaac took us from a water shortage conversation to a discussion on keeping the lake from getting too high – all in the span of just a few weeks.”
Over the past year, the water management section has developed a map that illustrates flows throughout the Central & Southern Florida project, which includes Lake Okeechobee. That map can be found at the Water Management webpage at: http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/WaterManagement.aspx, then click on the “current conditions” button on the right side of the page.