Lake O level is close to that of drought year of 2011, and water experts are worried

The Army Corps of Engineers said Lake Okeechobee’s water levels are getting too low as a weak wet season has left South Florida’s inland sea close to levels seen in 2011, when the state experienced the worst drought in nearly a century.

Lake O rose just about an inch in October, after the driest September on record, and currently stands at 13.45 feet.

“I’m a bit concerned about the lake level, we are right about where we were in 2011,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, Jacksonville District commander. He said he worries about whether the Corps will be able to maintain water releases into the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

“We started down a path of potentially stopping releases to the Caloosahatchee but then decided to try to maintain them as best as we can. I want consistency,” he said on a briefing call on Friday.

The Corps had resumed water releases to the estuary west of the lake early in October at a rate of 650 cubic feet per second, averaged over seven days and measured at Franklin Lock and Dam. The Corps hadn’t made any releases for several months before that. The Caloosahatchee Estuary needs a mixture of fresh and salt water to stay healthy and support marine life.

Lake Okeechobee discharges have been a controversial topic for decades as releases are often too much or too little for the troubled Caloosahatchee and its estuary, which stretches from the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva to the Gulf of Mexico. And the river needs clean water. Releases of nutrient-rich water from Lake O have led to foul-smelling algae blooms and fish kills in the Caloosahatchee.

John Cassani, director at Calusa Waterkeeper, collects algae in June near the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam Park. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

The releases from the lake in 2018 coincided with a red tide that swept up and down the Gulf Coast, filled beaches with dead fish and killed manatees and sea turtles as well. Scientists say the polluted lake water flushed down the Caloosahatchee River likely exacerbated it.

Red tide has been spotted again this year along Florida’s southwestern coast. The latest red tide report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed high concentrations of the toxic algae blooms in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties. Red tide toxins were not observed along the east or northeast coasts of the state, the FWC said.

Kelly said he doesn’t believe the lake discharges caused the blooms and said that some of the storms in the Gulf may have contributed to the latest red tide outbreak.

Lake O is a key water source for South Florida, used to replenish drinking water supplies for some communities and tapped for irrigation by sugar cane growers and other farmers. It’s also the heart of the Central Everglades region and a gatekeeper between the watershed from the north and the Southern Everglades.

Before people and development altered South Florida’s drainage in the early 20th century, rain that fell between Orlando and the lake would drain slowly through the Kissimmee Basin to Okeechobee, where it would be held. At times of high water, Lake O would overflow to the south, replenishing the Everglades with fresh water. At times of low water, the flow would stop, allowing for portions of the Everglades to dry naturally.

Now, water is artificially sent in different directions at different times of the year, and Lake O has both reached historic lows as a result of drought and lack of water conservation measures, and record highs that required water managers to discharge polluted water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

During droughts, the lake also is a barometer for water conditions across the region. Low lake levels can trigger emergency watering restrictions, as in 2011.

Still, the South Florida Water Management District said Lake O is not low enough to enter a water shortage level, and restrictions aren’t necessary at the moment.

Follow Adriana Brasileiro on Twitter at @AdriBras