What impacts could Tropical Storm Eta have on Lake O and water releases?

As we continue to watch Tropical Storm Eta’s track, we’re looking at the impact it could have on Southwest Florida water.

If Eta dumps a lot of rain on us, it could mean more water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Lake O releases started last month and are changing the color of water along Lee County’s coast. A tropical storm over the lake means its levels will rise in a hurry, and it’s the job of the Army Corps of Engineers to keep Lake O at a safe level, even if that means releasing more water our way.

“The level is almost where we want it,” said Eric Milbrandt, marine lab director with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

But pour too much water in and it will spill out.

“The high amounts of rainfall may deliver enough water to raise the lake to a dangerous level, which would threaten the integrity of the dike that surrounds the lake,” Milbrandt said.

That tragedy happened before.

“There was a catastrophic flood event in the 1920s where that dike was compromised, and thousands of people died,” Milbrandt said.

One of the Corps’ jobs is to keep that from happening again. Right now, the lake’s level is just over 16 feet, and if Tropical Storm Eta veers near Lake O, the Corps will keep the lake’s discharges going.

“We are experiencing damaging flows now. Those levels are damaging to oysters and seagrass,” said John Cassani with Calusa Waterkeeper.

“The effect of that is it’s just going to add insult to injury in terms of the Caloosahatchee estuary.”

The Caloosahatchee River is already too murky and dark, and a storm will only make things worse.

“We know that when the water loses its clarity or transparency, it has a major impact on property values,” Cassani said.

Others say it’s better to do it now than to let the lake get to dangerously high levels.

“There’s not algae material flowing out of the lake. It’s the wrong time of year, it’s cooler,” said Dr. Barry Rosen, a professor at The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“The flows we see now are small compared to what they would have to do to maintain the integrity of that dike.”

Repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are in progress but won’t be complete for another couple of years. The Corps will discuss its storm plans on Friday.

Reporter:Anika Henanger
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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