Orlando Sentinel

December 20, 2010

Lake Okeechobee water releases stopped; concerns over South Florida supplies

By Andy Reid


Lake Okeechobee water releases intended to help west coast fishing grounds came to a stop over the weekend amid growing concerns about South Florida water supplies.

The 730-square-mile lake serves as South Florida's backup water supply, which includes providing irrigation for sugar cane growers and other farmers south of the lake. Anticipating a drought, the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday stopped releasing lake water to the Caloosahatchee River.

With lake levels dropping, agricultural representatives for weeks warned against continuing low-level lake discharges used to boost the environmental health of the Caloosahatchee River during dry weather.

Environmental groups and west coast community leaders countered that environmentally beneficial lake releases should not be stopped until tougher restrictions are imposed on water users throughout the region.

Stopping the water releases to the river was a "difficult decision" intended to help prolong water supplies during the months to come, according to the Army Corps.

"If predictions are accurate, we will likely experience drought conditions over the next several months," said Lt. Col. Michael Kinard, the Army Corps' deputy district commander for South Florida.

The Army Corps of Engineers controls Lake Okeechobee water levels, with input from the South Florida Water Management District. Lake Okeechobee on Monday was 12.56 feet above sea level, more than two feet below average and a foot lower than this time last year.

The Army Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet, while balancing flood control, water supply and environmental needs.

While the environmental lake releases have stopped, the lake hasn't dropped to the point where additional watering restrictions could begin, according to the district.

The lake would have to go down four more inches to trigger the point where Executive Director Carol Wehle could start imposing emergency irrigation restrictions on communities and agricultural land near the lake.

The district's board this month gave Wehle the go-ahead to start imposing initial irrigation restrictions before the board's January meeting, if the lake level decline continued to a specified range.

If enacted, emergency restrictions could intensify and spread to more of South Florida if dry conditions worsen.

During dry weather, periodic water releases from Lake Okeechobee bring an infusion of fresh water that helps lower salinity levels in the Caloosahatchee estuary and protect sea grasses and other habitat that provide vital fishing grounds.

Environmental groups contend that the amount of lake water used during recent weeks to help the Caloosahatchee doesn't compare to the amount used by agriculture and other water users.

A month's worth of low-level water releases to the Caloosahatchee equates to taking about .7 inches of water off the lake, compared to the lake losing 2.5 inches for irrigation and other water supply needs, according to Audubon of Florida.

Water users across South Florida should be further cut back before the Caloosahatchee gets cut off from the Lake Okeechobee water, according to Rae Ann Wessel, a marine scientist of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

"The natural system simply can't be scapegoats," Wessel said.