October 07, 2016


Lake O dike is OK, but Corps of Engineers removes discharge limits

By Bruce Ritchie




Lake could rise to its highest point in decade due to Hurricane Matthew

TALLAHASSEE The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers could further increase discharges from Lake Okeechobee because of Hurricane Matthew as the lake could rise to its highest point in a decade.


"We anticipate inflows to the lake will increase as a result of Hurricane Matthew," Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps' Jacksonville district commander, said in a statement Friday. "Therefore, we must maximize outflows in order to slow the rise in the lake and be as prepared as possible for additional hurricane season uncertainty."


The federal agency discharges water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers to maintain the flood control dike around the lake. Those releases can be followed by algae blooms and a political firestorm, as occurred last July.


Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that the Corps of Engineers is concerned that Hurricane Matthew could do a loop after passing the state and bring even more rain to Lake Okeechobee.


The Corps said Friday it has removed flow "targets" for the rivers it will release as much water as is practical depending on conditions in the rivers.


Discharges could increase to 6,500 cubic feet per second in the Caloosahatchee River, more than twice the discharge set on Sept. 1. In the St. Lucie River, the discharges could increase to 5,500 cubic feet per second compared to 650 cubic feet per second in September.


The Corps has been increasing discharges since Sept. 1 as the lake level has risen, setting off fears among some coastal residents of another algae bloom.


The federal agency tries to maintain the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. The lake level on Friday was 15.93 feet and it could rise to 16.5 feet in the coming days, the Corps said.


"Our initial reports indicate the dike has weathered the storm well," Kirk said. "However, we want to conduct more thorough inspections to identify any issues as early as possible. Public safety is our highest priority."


The discharges bring dark, nutrient rich water into river estuaries that smothers sea grass, chokes other aquatic life and threatens coastal economies. Several coastal counties remain under a state of emergency issued by Scott earlier this summer after algae coated some east coast beaches.


In response to the discharges, incoming Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, proposed in August that the state and federal government buy 60,000 acres for a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for $2.4 billion. Sugar cane growers and other agricultural interests say the reservoir won't prevent discharges in wet years.