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'Wet' dry season could spell trouble for 'full' Lake O

Releasing the water is a double-edged sword for southwest Florida
Lake O discharges
Posted at 5:34 PM, Nov 17, 2023

LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — For months Fox 4 has been tracking Lake Okeechobee for its high-water levels. But now with El Nino conditions developing, the forecast calls for a wetter than normal dry season. That means getting the water down in the lake could become more difficult.

"Any other year you tell me the lake is 16 feet at the start of the dry season, and I'm celebrating,” said Akin Owosina, Chief of Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau with the South Florida Water Management District. “Because it means we have water storage to use throughout the dry season."

But not this year. Owosina says an El Nino dry season requires water managers to make tougher decisions with the lake level potentially not dropping as much as they would like during a typical winter.

"With managing Lake Okeechobee, it isn't about what is happening in the season you are in,” said Osowina. “It is what happens the season after or the season after that?"

That next season, being next summer's wet season, meaning whether there is enough room in the lake or not.

"The key is you don't want your bank to have a big balance at the end of the dry season,” said Owosina. “You want it to be depleted so you can store all the rain we will get."

If it is not low enough, there are consequences.

"Then we have the risk of a lot more water coming into the Lake we have to deal with,” said Osowina. “Which means potential for discharges, which is something we don't want to do."

Releasing the water means protecting areas like Clewiston. The caveat though for the Caloosahatchee River is it could cause blue-green algae.

So, what do we do? Owosina says it is a balancing act of not ending the dry season too high, but also not too low either.

"If you send big discharges now and then this year is unusual El Niño year and it doesn't get as wet as we think it would then you have that risk that you overshoot, which we are also trying to avoid," said Owosina.

As of right now, the Army Corps of Engineers is planning to stick with only beneficial releases into the Caloosahatchee River as needed.

"That only allows you to move so much water out of the Lake,” said Col. James Booth, Commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. “That all depends on what is going on throughout the dry season with evaporation transpiration and rainfall to see where the actual Lake levels land. Ultimately, our goal is to bring lake levels down."

Water managers tell Fox 4 that we are very much in a holding pattern to see what falls in the bucket this dry season. Either way, the Army Corps says it will be difficult to get the lake much lower than where we were heading into last wet season around 13.5 feet.