LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee on Saturday at a rate of 1,800 cubic feet per second.
"The lake remains at its lowest level since 2011,” said Army Corp Spokesperson John Campbell. But he says they want to continue releasing water into the Caloosahatchee River to get a head start on the rainy season.
The 2016 El Nino season caught many people off guard. Heavy rains forced the corps to release more water than expected, leading to devastating algae blooms in Southwest Florida.
"We are hopeful that doing some small releases now, getting the lake back on a downward trajectory, reduces the probability of having to do harmful releases over the summer,” said Campbell.
Most of Southwest Florida is free and clear of algae and the red tide that is often accelerated by the algal blooms. “A lot of people think it would be best to not have any releases from the lake, unfortunately we cannot do without some releases of Lake Water,” said the Director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Jennifer Hecker.
She says the Caloosahatchee River actually needs a healthy balance of salt and fresh water to keep vital marine species alive. “The sea grasses and the oysters, they naturally cleanse the water, Oysters can cleanse up to 50 gallons per day, so when we lose them, it can have a very serious impact on the water quality,” said Hecker.
Larger creatures like manatees feed on those sea grasses. Too much or too little water could wreck the entire food chain along the river, not just oysters and fish.
The Lake Okeechobee releases are scheduled to end March 16, but that could be extended if the area receives heavy rainfall.