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Corps: Immediately reducing ‘Lake O’ discharges ‘not a responsible decision’

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The state agency overseeing water resources south of Orlando has requested the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the amount of water discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers by Friday.

But doing so could make conditions worse, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds said.

“At this time we don’t see that as a responsible decision for us to make,” said Reynolds, South Florida deputy district commander for the Corps of Engineers, during a media call on Thursday. “If the weather conditions change in the coming weeks, we will reduce the releases. But until we have a better perspective on what the weather conditions are, the amount of rain we’ll see the next few months, we don’t think it’ll be responsible to reduce the maximum level of releases.”

The South Florida Water Management District wants the Corps of Engineers to follow a 2008 regulation schedule outlining the release of 2,800 cubic feet of water per second (20,950 gallons) into the St. Lucie River and 6,500 cubic feet per second (48,620 gallons) into the Caloosahatchee River.

Within the past 24 hours, releases from Lake Okeechobee averaged 6,350 cubic feet
per second (4.1 billion gallons per day) into the Caloosahatchee River and 3,760 cubic feet per second (2.4 billion gallons per day) into the St. Lucie Canal, officials said.

Recent rainfall has resulted in record water levels at the lake, forcing the Corps of Engineers to release maximum levels of brown, murky water into the aforementioned rivers. The water has made for an eyesore on Gulf beaches, which residents, local officials and environmentalists say has negatively impacted the area’s economy and ecology.

“Lowering the discharge amounts will reduce the adverse ecological impacts to the estuaries while achieving reasonable water management goals for the lake,” the district said in a statement.

Strain on the system

January was the wettest on record since the Corps of Engineers began tracking area rainfall in 1932, Reynolds said.

The region experiences rain events about once a week, which is normal for this time of year, but El Nino conditions have doubled the amount of rainfall, Reynolds said.

The lake’s water stage of 16.25 feet has not decreased since maximum releases began two weeks ago. The ideal water stage is between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet, with water levels being as low as possible prior to the wet season, officials said.

“The entire system is wet,” Reynolds said. “We are examining capacity in every place we can store water. We are looking at different locations to maximize flow to tide as capacity is available in those systems.”

The Corps, at the request of Gov. Rick Scott, recently began raising the water level of the L-29 canal to 8.5 feet so that “substantial volumes” of water can be moved from Water Conservation Area 3, where there is heavy flooding, through the Shark River Slough.

It may be a month before decreased water levels are noticeable in the conservation area, located between Alligator Alley and the Tamiami Trail, as area water levels continue to increase, Reynolds said.

If the plan works, it could be applied to help reduce water levels at Lake Okeechobee, officials said.

An educated estimate

Ultimately, any effort to reduce water discharges from the lake is contingent on the weather.

The Corps uses rainfall totals from 1998 to predict current rainfall, which significantly impacts lake water levels and determines how soon the maximum releases will stop, Reynolds said.

“We don’t see releases ending in the next 60 days,” she said. “I think we’ll be in especially wet conditions through the Spring and through the wet season.”

Predicting current rainfall has been difficult, Reynolds said. While El Nino conditions were present late last year, rainfall in November and December impacted other parts of the country, and any prevalent rainfall in Florida occurred in the southernmost parts of the state, Reynolds said.

Reducing lake water levels then increased the risk of the region not having enough water, for many El Nino systems are followed by drier weather, Reynolds said.

“At the time, our science-based decision didn’t deem that a prudent decision to make,” she said.

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