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Lake Okeechobee releases begin

Army Corps of Engineers announces releases into Caloosahatchee Estuary

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Oct 14, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers announced that releases from Lake Okeechobee would begin Wednesday afternoon into the Caloosahatchee Estuary and St. Lucie Estuary due to rising lake levels.

Colonel Andrew Kelly, commander of the Jacksonville district for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he expects the releases to last approximately a month depending on the amount of rain, heat as well as other weather-related factors.

Kelly said the Army Corps of Engineers has been holding off on releases as long as possible but that heavy rains since August necessitated the release. “We’ve been very deliberate,” he said.

“For a while, it looked like we were going to get there. At this point, we are where we are.”

The discharges are necessary due to rising water levels at the lake, currently at about 16.25 feet. Kelly said the lake rose by one foot in August, 1.25 feet in September and more than a foot so far in October.

The lake has risen “more quickly than we want,” Kelly said. “There is still a significant storm threat out there.” Kelly noted that the state’s hurricane season is not yet over.

The releases will be approximately 4,000 cubic feet per second of water to the west of the lake and 1,800 cubic feet per second to the east.

The Army Corps of Engineers had been focusing releases south to the Everglades but Kelly said that area is now too wet to take in all of the lake’s releases. “We’ve seen pretty high flows from basin runoff,” Kelly said.

Kelly said he expects those fishing off the Caloosahatchee estuary could see impacts to oysters.

Kelly said he is committed to reducing and stopping the flows “as soon as we can.”

There has been concern in the past that releases from Lake Okeechobee during blue-green algae blooms could damage the water in the Gulf of Mexico though Kelly said the “Florida Department of Environmental Protection has done a good job of monitoring blue-green algae blooms” and that “the recent samples were very good.” The increasingly cooler water conditions has made the level of blue-green algae not “abnormally high,” according to Kelly. “Honestly, it has not been a bad algae year.” He said the conditions are better now than “in the heat of the summer.”

teve Johnson, president of the Fort Myers Beach Tarpon Hunter’s Club and chairman of the Town of Fort Myers Beach Marine Resource Task Force, said the water releases “are certainly troublesome. The water has been beautiful this entire summer,” he said.

Johnson said tarpon fishing “has been terrific” this summer. “We’ve had the opportunity to have an abundance of marine life off the beach.

“We have two real problems. One is long-term, one is short-term,” Johnson said. The long-term effects, he said, are on the salinity of the estuary on the oysters and seagrasses which are essential for fish reproduction and the environment.

The short-term problem is the expectation of brown water “loaded with nutrients” emptying out into the estuary and Gulf of Mexico which will drive sea life away from beach, ending the season for tarpon, he said. He is concerned of conditions growing for red tide.

James Evans, environmental policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said his organization is concerned about potential impacts on oysters and seagrass due to already-low salinity levels in the lower Caloosahatchee estuary and San Carlos Bay. The foundation has sensors throughout the estuary to keep track of the salinity levels.

Evans said he believes the Army Corps of Engineers has done a good job of holding back on its releases from Lake Okeechobee until now. With heavy rains in August and September, the freshwater releases from the lake could harm areas already overwhelmed by runoff from the watershed, he said. Presently, the area around Fort Myers is the worst, Evans said.

Currently, the salinity levels are holding well in Fort Myers Beach, Shell Point and Tarpon Bay, where the foundation has sensors.

Evans said the higher runoffs have been going on for the past 45 days and with the latest releases, that could stretch the amount of time the seagrass in the estuary can handle the additional runoff. The seagrass depends on the sun for photosynthesis and too much runoff can impact the photosynthesis process. The seagrass important for organisms that feed on it as well as fish species which feed on those organisms and use the seagrass for cover, Evans said.

Oysters are especially vulnerable, since they don’t move from the ocean floor, Evans said. Oysters are important in that they filter out the water.

Evans said there is a risk that if the winter is too dry that the lake could be drawn down to a level that is too low. The rainy season is over though the hurricane season lasts into November.

“I would like to thank the Army Corps of Engineers for managing the lake levels the way they have the last two years,” Evans said.

Fort Myers Beach Mayor Ray Murphy said the releases from the lake were “not a real surprise.”

Murphy said he is hopeful that with cooler water temperatures there won’t be “too much damage to the estuary.”