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Army Corps set to begin water releases from Lake O this weekend

Posted at 6:01 PM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-14 18:10:37-05

W.P. FRANKLIN LOCK AND DAM, Fla. — Starting this weekend, more water will be flowing down the Calooshatchee River as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be increasing water releases from Lake Okeechobee to reduce lake levels. This will lower safety concerns that come from a high lake.

“We’re sitting in this place where the Lake is abnormally high,” said Matt DePaolis, SCCF’s Enviromental Policy Director. “It’s been artificially high for months now, basically since Ian and Nicole came through the state. The lake has basically been around 16 feet.”

And this dry season, which is typically a time we see lake levels drop, has been exceptionally wet due to ongoing El Nino. That has kept water levels high and even increased them. And with a forecast switch to a La Nina this summer, possibly leading to an active hurricane season, the U.S. Army Corps was forced to make a tough decision.

“If that were to happen, we are going to be getting a lot of rain through the dry season and a lot of rain in the wet season, and that would push the lake certainly above the threshold where it becomes a safety hazard, and we need to get these releases,” said DePaolis

But DePaolis says despite the disappointing news that releases need to be made, this is the right time to do it.

“We are up against this multi-faceted deadline, the oyster season is coming up upon us, where oysters are spawning,” said DePaolis. “So, we certainly don’t want to release then. And we really want to avoid doing any releases over the summer when we have an active blue-green algae bloom.”

And speaking of blue-green algae, there is not an active bloom on the lake. Fox 4 Meteorologist Andrew Shipley asked FGCU Professor Dr. Barry Rosen, if these releases could lead to blooms in the Caloosahatchee.

“As you go west, and you get closer to the marine system, if you freshen it, and it’s the right time of year cynanobactica will do better, but I don’t think we are at the right time of year for that,” said Dr. Rosen. “If it was May, I would be a lot more concerned. But this is mid-February, we should be ok doing releases.

What about red tide? Dr. Rosen says the freshwater plume will make it more difficult for any red tide to access any nutrients carried by the releases since it prefers a saltwater environment.

“But additional nutrients whether they are dissolved nutrients or available for other organisms to start to grow, which the red tide can feed on that is all certainly a possibility,” said Dr. Rosen.

While we aren’t seeing significant red tide impacts right now, DePaolis says it has been detected in the background of recent samples.

“We are seeing animals and shorebirds that have some in that have suspected Brevetoxins, which is the poisoning that you get from the red tide,” said DePaolis. “So, we know that there is potentially a bloom somewhere out there.”

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers says these releases will begin on Saturday to the east, west, and south, include 4,000 cubic feet per second into the Caloosahatchee at Moore Haven Lock and Dam. Thats the equivalent to about 2 and half Olympic swimming pools every minute. That will be in addition to normal basin runoff from rain events.

Jacksonville District Commander Col. James Booth is scheduled to address these releases on Friday morning. Fox 4 is hearing that releases will last 6 weeks, with the goal of dropping the Lake 2 feet over that span.