US Army Corps of Engineers
Jacksonville District

Frequently Asked Questions - Lake Okeechobee Water Management

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We are releasing water to slow the rise in the lake so adequate storage is available for the remainder of hurricane season. The inflow potential far exceeds the outflow capacity at the lake, so we have to assume a tropical system will produce a 3-4 foot rise in the water level before inflows slow to the point that they are matched by outflows. Proactive lake management, in accordance with our water control plan, helps ensure storage is available to handle heavy rain events. The Jacksonville District commander, Col. Jason Kirk, recently addressed this subject in a guest column: Why we release water.
We acknowledge and are sensitive to the environmental concerns, however we have to operate the system to manage flood risk for the millions of people who live and work in south Florida. The Central & Southern Florida Project, which was authorized and constructed following a flood that left water in people’s homes for months, currently has little capacity to handle heavy rain from a tropical system. Water releases from Lake Okeechobee help create additional capacity and the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Canal are the outlets that can move large quantities of water necessary to create additional storage.
For many years, we have had concerns about the stability of the dike surrounding the lake. The dike has a history of issues when lake levels get above 17.5 feet. Proactively managing the water level in the lake, in accordance with our water control plan, helps reduce the risk of dike failure.
At this point the dike is stable. If the lake increases to 16.5 feet, we will start conducting weekly inspections in accordance with our plan. If the lake increases to 17.5 feet, we will inspect portions of the dike daily. The intent of our inspections is to identify minor issues and deal with them as needed before they turn into major problems.
There isn’t a specific lake level at which our emergency plan for the dike is activated. We base that decision on the conditions we’re observing. We believe proactive lake management and an aggressive inspection schedule helps reduce the risk of dike failure.
Who is impacted will be determined largely by where the breach occurs and how high the lake is at that time. If a failure were to occur near one of the communities next to the dike, people living there would be at risk. Many of our scenarios show significant flooding in the agriculture area south of the lake. Our most extreme scenarios, with a lake level above 25 feet, show minor flooding as far east as the outskirts of the West Palm Beach metropolitan area.
It is difficult to say with any certainty as it depends when, where, and how much precipitation falls in the coming months. It’s certainly reasonable to expect that releases in some form may continue into the fall.
The water that comes into the lake is loaded with phosphorus, nitrogen, and other elements that are part of stormwater run-off from yards, golf courses, and farms throughout the watershed. The Corps of Engineers has no authority to regulate water quality in the lake or the canals; that responsibility falls to other agencies.
A variety of factors lead to the algae in the estuaries. Algal blooms are natural occurrences triggered by increased water temperature, sunlight and nutrient-rich water that provides favorable growing conditions. Nitrogen and phosphorus from septic systems and storm runoff also contribute to the problem. Algal blooms occur in many places around the world.
Discharges of excess water from the communities south of Lake Okeechobee and Everglades Agricultural Area are allowed when area canals rise to a prescribed level following a heavy-rain event, and the capacity doesn’t exist to send the water south. This is consistent with the design of the system. These discharges help prevent flooding of homes, businesses, and other property in the area and are authorized under a permit granted by the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection.
Our options for managing the water that comes into Lake Okeechobee are very limited. We can hold it in the lake, which increases flood risk for people living and working near the dike. We can send water south when capacity exists in the Water Conservation Areas, but all three areas remain above their limits for this time of year — sending water south now increases flood risk for people in Miami and Fort Lauderdale metro areas. Our remaining option to reduce flood risk for all is to send the water east and west as the system was designed. We acknowledge that doing so upsets the saltwater-freshwater balance in the estuaries, but it also concurrently reduces flood risk for the greatest number of people.
This is the scenario that concerns us. We still have the peak of hurricane season ahead of us, and the lake is currently higher than it was before Hurricane Irma, a storm that caused a 3.5-foot rise in the lake in the span of a month. A similar storm today would have the potential to send the lake above 18 feet, which is why we are doing these releases — to maximize the capacity available in the lake for such an event.
That’s what these releases are doing. The lake has no emergency spillway or any other mechanism to drastically lower the water level in advance of an approaching storm. Inflow potential far exceeds the outflow capacity which is why we must be proactive in our water management activities.
Once authorized and constructed, a proposed reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area combined with the Central Everglades Planning Project would provide the infrastructure needed to move more water south. However, the features in the project won’t end all releases to the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie; but the frequency and duration of release events will be lower.

Water Management

Water Management rotating imagesThe Water Management Section monitors and manages the multi-purpose operations of spillways, locks, pump stations, culverts, canals, reservoirs, and water conservation areas located in the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, the Four River Basins (FRB) Project, and the Portugues and Bucana (P&B) Rivers Project.

Our Daily Reports and Graphical Plots show current water level and flow data. Some graphical plots show near realtime data.

The C&SF project is a multi-purpose project that provides flood control; water supply for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses; prevention of saltwater intrusion; water supply for the Everglades National Park (ENP); and protection of fish and wildlife resources. It involves an area of about 18,000 square miles, which includes all or part of 18 counties in central and southern Florida.

We acknowledge the cooperative efforts of the following federal and state agencies: U.S. Geological Survey, National Weather Service, Everglades National Park Service, South Florida Water Management District, St. Johns River Water Management District and Southwest Florida Water Management District.

View the Okeechobee Waterway Spillway web cameras.