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How much water is really getting released from Lake O?

Some stakeholders believe the U.S. Army Corps is using creative accounting to lower flow averages.
Posted at 5:37 PM, Feb 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-22 17:37:03-05

W.P. FRANKLIN LOCK AND DAM, Fla. — It has been about a week since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water out of Lake Okeechobee into both the St. Lucie River as well as the Caloosahatchee River. But are the flows higher than the Army Corps said just a week ago? That is a question many stakeholders are asking.

Last week the Corps announced that water releases would begin from Lake Okeechobee to prepare the high lake for the upcoming wet season and hurricane season.

“This means maximum practical releases to the south. An average of 4,000 cfs at Julian King Jr. Lock and Dam, also known as S-77, to the west. 1,800 cfs at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, also known as S-80, to the east,” said Col. James Booth, the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.

But when the release schedule was put out last weekend, the Corps appeared to use some creative accounting to get to those numbers.

“The way they have structured that is to front load those 14 days with releases up to 6,500 cfs and then dropping down to zero at the end of that schedule,” said Matt DePaolis, environmental policy director for Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

When you remove those last four days of zero water being released, the flow average increases to nearly 1.5 times the amount of water originally announced. DePaolis says flows this high are at damaging levels for the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

“And as that water gets more and more fresh and less saline. That provides a lot of stress for the organisms in there that require that brackish estuarian environment.”

To help counter that amount stress to the environment, those four recovery days of zero flows were added, which Col. Booth said was possible in a media call last Friday.

“We could actually see a higher flow rate to make room for a pause,” said Col. Booth.

While that is reflected in the 14-day schedule of releases, that raises the question if that is enough time for the estuary to recover? DePaolis doesn’t believe so based off a 2021 published paper by FGCU professor Dr. Darren Rumbold.

“He thought after a 5-day release schedule, it is really important to have three days off,” said DePaolis. “And in colder water like we have now it would be possible to do a 14-day release, but also was inherent to that is a 14-day recovery period.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did tell Fox 4 on Thursday, that given the lack of regression of the lake levels since the start of releases, thanks to all the recent rain, they do expect to make an adjustment for the following 14 day schedule. With that lack of regression of the lake, one could assume that we could see even higher flows down the Caloosahatchee River in the coming weeks.