U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Lake Okeechobee releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers began Wednesday afternoon.
According to the corps, the releases started with the expected 4,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). The water is expected to reach the Lee County coast within the next few hours.
The corps said the Lake O rise is going up more quickly than engineers want, so they need to begin the releases because of the active storm season. The goal is for them to begin making releases for the shortest amount of time as possible until the lake level has stabilized.
Ahead of the releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, Lake Okeechobee’s water level was at roughly 16.25 feet Wednesday, which is too high for the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake.
Water flowing our way has raised concerns for many along the Caloosahatchee, and along our beaches and other waterways. In the past, the corps released water in the hotter summer months, increasing the presence of blue-green algae in Lee County waters, but they say by waiting until mid-October, they hope it will have less of an impact.
Lake O is healthier at the moment than in years past, meaning less harmful water is flowing into the river.
Still, it’s something researchers will keep a close eye on.
“I don’t think you’re going to see anything from these releases. Most of the algae I’ve seen this summer in the Caloosahatchee is not the organism that bloomed in 2018 or 2016,” said Dr. Barry Rosen, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Water School.
Too much freshwater can also harm the seagrass and oyster beds in the Caloosahatchee, as the estuary is a delicate balance between salt and freshwater.
“It could have an impact to any organisms like oysters and things like that that would rather have that moderate salinity rather than more of the freshwater dose,” Rosen explained.
While he doesn’t expect a blue-green algae bloom like in 2018 as a result of Wednesday’s releases, he believes we could see darker water from organic matter.
“Most likely the water coming out of the lake is going to be much browner from tannins. That’s not nutrients per se.”
In fact, he said the organism behind those nasty blooms two years ago isn’t around.
“They’re not really in Lake Okeechobee. They’re not in the canal system, so there’s very little chance they would suddenly start to be abundant,” Rosen said.
Fort Myers Beach took a hit when the pandemic forced the economy to shut down. Now that business is coming back, they can’t afford another crisis – especially a water crisis.
Experts say that isn’t likely, but the fear is still real. Many still remember the summer of 2018 when water woes kept a lot of tourists away and hardly anyone was on the beach.
“I remember it very well because we would come down here and all of the restaurants were closed, there were no people on the sidewalks, it was like going through a ghost town. And the smell, it was awful,” said Judy Gustafson of Fort Myers.
She has her fingers crossed that this time around, the Lake O releases don’t do the same kind of damage.
Brian Nagle, the general manager of Shuckers and the Cottage Bar, said this year has already been bad enough.
“That on top of COVID, I mean, that could kill us.”
Nagle said people will still come to Fort Myers Beach when the water’s murky, which it is already is because of rainy season runoffs, but anything worse would be a problem.
“That’s all it takes. To come down here for the blue water and white sand, and you’re coming down here and you have a bad smell and dead fish. I mean, what are you coming to? There is nothing to come to at that point,” Nagle said.
But even as water started flowing from Lake O, the air was clear and Fort Myers Beach was good to go.
Lake O community happy to see releases made
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the release of the large volume of water from Lake Okeechobee is a necessary to protect the lake and the communities around it, but it creates concerns for communities in Southwest Florida.
Barrett Ringstaff lives and fishes around Lake Okeechobee, and he says the sight and this sound of water rushing is good for hi community.
“I’m very glad, thankful that we are finally getting some water released off of our marsh and off of our lake,” Ringstaff said. “With that high water levels, it is actually a risk, and we might lose some of that grass on our marsh for filtering the water out.”
Those who live around the lake say the release is protecting Lake O’s natural filters, but it’s also protecting them from flooding.
“Lake Okeechobee is not designed to be at a 16 foot or higher lake,” said Scott Martin, the co-founder of Anglers for Lake Okeechobee. “If we do get a late hurricane this late in the year, it could really cause a lot of damage to a lot of communities in the people around the lake.”
But down the coast at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, leaders worry this water will harm organisms and the water coming in could hurt the economy too.
“It can disturb the salinity balance in the estuary and can also put excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus,” said James Evans, the SCCF environmental policy director. “That can fuel algae blooms.”
“That dark water plume blankets our beaches with dark water and it has a direct impact on our businesses on our tourism economy,” Evans said.
The amount of water going to the coast is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 22 seconds.
Experts with SCCF say we will start seeing some of that water on our coast by late Thursday. They hope this water flow does not last long.
“We can handle some flows for a short period of time even if they’re on top of what we’re getting,” Evans said. “But we would like to keep that duration as short as possible.”