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U.S. Army Corps fail to receive biological opinion by deadline for Lake O water management

Posted at 6:48 PM, Sep 01, 2023

LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — In the wake of Hurricane Idalia, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a positive update on Lake Okeechobee, now post-storm. Despite Idalia bringing decent rain to parts of Florida, the levels in Lake O barely rose, and currently sit at 15.36 feet. That is because the rainfall in the Kissimmee Basin only measured 2 to 3 inches, more typical of daily rainfall in the rainy season.

“It's certainly always good when you have a higher lake if the Kissimmee chain of lakes has the ability to absorb that water and not run it off that quickly to Lake Okeechobee,” said Col. James Booth, District Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.

And without large amounts of rainfall north of the Lake from Idalia, the U.S. Army Corps does not expect any major increases in lake levels.

“If you look at our numbers, I think this is the 3rd week we have seen roughly no change in the lake levels,” said Col. Booth. “And that’s basically showing what’s coming in, either direct rain over the lake or coming in off the Kissimmee chain of lake is roughly matching what evaporation transpiration is pulling off the lake.”

While the Lake wasn't expecting a large rise from Idalia, the W.P. Franklin Lock on the Caloosahatchee was briefly impacted by the storm surge. The surge brought water from the Gulf up the river to up and over the gates of the lock.

“Just upstream of S-79 W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, was an increased water elevation for about a period of a day or so, while we waited for that tidal surge to go back down,” said Col. Booth. “That condition has gone away now. We have the capability to open the gate and flow water off, upstream of S-79 and I think have been doing that for about a day now.”

While the Corps gave positive news in the wake of Idalia, they also shared disappointing news when it came to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). LOSOM has been delayed since June as the Corp waits for a biological opinion from NOAA and now could be delayed past the new December timeline.

“We were scheduled to receive a final biological opinion from NMFS on the 30th of August,” said Col. Booth. “We did not meet that date and continue productive coordination with the National Marine Fishery Service.”

LOSOM is the first attempt in a decade to revise how Lake O water is managed and will decide how much water is released, when it will be sent, and where it will go.

“Yes, there is still a possibility we make December, but there is also a possibility that we have a delay beyond December, but I can’t gauge the actual answer of the actual delay that could be yet,” said Col. Booth.

Col. Booth said he and his team will be working with the National Marine Fishery Service and hope to have a better timeline on the biological opinion and the start of LOSOM late next week.