Stay in the know about wildlife, water quality, and ecosystems on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in Southwest Florida

Lake Okeechobee Releases Starting This Weekend

February 13, 2024
Franklin Lock

The Franklin Lock and Dam

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Feb. 14 that it will start releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, sending damaging freshwater flows into the river’s estuary.

Lake Okeechobee has remained higher than normal since Hurricanes Ian and Nicole raised levels by over 2 feet in autumn 2022.

“Since those storms, the Army Corps has been working to manage the lake, attempting to lower it at times, and ‘banking’ [storing] water when it deemed releases were not prudent,” said SCCF Environmental Policy Director Matt DePaolis. “Now, however, a wetter dry season due to el Niño has prevented the drawdown we normally expect to see during the drier winter months.” 

Lake Okeechobee is currently at 16.38 feet, which is deemed to be in the ‘intermediate’ band of LORS08 (the current management schedule), allowing for up to 4,000 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) to be released into the Caloosahatchee from the lake. With more rain on the way, the Corps has decided to begin those lake releases.

The releases are set to begin this weekend, currently slotted for Saturday. The USACE aims to send 6,300 cfs out of the lake, with 4,000 cfs heading west to the Caloosahatchee, 1,800 cfs heading east to the St. Lucie Estuary, and 500 cfs to the Lake Worth Lagoon.

Discharge levels will be damaging to the estuary when they leave the lake. These releases will likely be augmented by basin runoff from rainfall in the river’s watershed, increasing their impact to the estuary.

The Army Corps plans to engage stakeholders to determine the proper length of releases, and SCCF will help to ensure that the ‘pulses’ will be structured to protect the health of the estuary. Recommendations will be provided to water managers in our weekly Caloosahatchee Conditions Reports.  

“The estuary relies on a balance of salt and fresh water to provide the appropriate balance within the ecosystems to support tapegrass, seagrass, oysters, and other estuarine organisms. If too much fresh water enters the system for too long, it can stress organisms past their tolerance levels,” DePaolis said. “If the releases continue into oyster spawning season there is a risk of damaging future oyster populations. SCCF will be engaging the Army Corps to ensure they do what’s best to protect the health of the ecosystem.”

Large releases can also transport and fuel harmful algal blooms in the estuary, as these water flows can carry blue-green algae from the lake. Luckily, there are no major blooms occurring on the lake at this time. However, another risk is that flows from the lake could provide nutrients that could fuel a future red tide bloom. Research from SCCF and the University of Florida show that Lake O releases can boost red tide blooms if they are present in the Gulf of Mexico.

“A large red tide bloom would be devastating to our wildlife, our environment, and the economy of our islands and coastal communities that are still recovering from Ian almost a year and half later,” DePaolis said. 

A new economic report released by SCCF, Captains for Clean Water, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida shows that a severe harmful algal bloom has the potential to cost our coastal communities over $5 billion in lost economic output, and risks over 43,000 jobs being lost.


“While red tide is a naturally occurring phenomena, the duration and intensity of the blooms we experience with increased frequency in Southwest Florida are not,” DePaolis said. “We know that the decisions we make around issues like fertilizer, septic, and stormwater result in polluted waterways that feed these blooms. The deluge of polluted water that comes from Lake Okeechobee in these releases is indicative of the larger pattern of mistreatment of our water resources.”

To avoid this danger in the future we need long-term solutions to discharges. SCCF will continue advocating for major Everglades restoration projects to come online, such as the EAA Reservoir and the C-43 Reservoir. The current situation also highlights the importance of finishing the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which should provide more security with our water management decisions.

“And more than anything, it drives home the need to be able to clean and send water south in much greater volumes than are presently available,” DePaolis said. “We hope that our leaders will face the present situation with the goals of safely lowering the lake while sharing the adversity among all stakeholders so that some do not reap only the benefits while others solely shoulder the burden.”


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