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Lake O Levels Threaten Ecological Health

July 12, 2023
Lake Okeechobee

As of today, Lake Okeechobee is about two feet higher than the level that supports a healthy ecosystem for the lake and its marshes and prairies, which provide habitat to wading bird and fish communities. Currently measuring 14.88 feet, the lake is 1.9 feet higher than the top of the ecological envelope, which defines the optimal range.

“The further away lake levels get from the healthy stage, the worse the ecological effects could get,” said SCCF Research & Policy Associate Leah Reidenbach. “Right now, we are seeing an example of how high lake levels are associated with algal blooms that have been plaguing the lake for most of the summer.”

Credit: South Florida Water Management District

High lake levels early in the summer lead to the potential for damaging releases later in the wet season, particularly as tropical storm activity increases. When the lake stage is too high for too long, the ecological effects ripple into the following seasons by causing permanent damage to Lake Okeechobee marsh and prairie habitats as well as wading bird and fish communities.

Over the past week, no water has been released to the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee, with a 14-day average of 3,371 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam (S-79). Those flows are coming mostly from runoff within the watershed.

“Flows greater than 2,600 cfs are considered damaging to the Caloosahatchee estuary and we have seen increasing signs of blue green algae along the canal and around communities along the Caloosahatchee as a result,” said Reidenbach. “This is why storage projects in the works are so important.”

Projects such as the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir (WBSR) — a 55.4-billion-gallon water storage area in Hendry County — are essential for mitigating excess flows from the watershed and from the Lake during the wet season. The C-43 WBSR is expected to be fully operational by 2026.

“In the meantime, we will have to continue bracing for a summer of high flows from the watershed, and potentially from Lake Okeechobee by the end of the wet season,” she added.


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