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After Rest Period, Lake O Releases Could Continue Through June 1

March 27, 2024
Lighthouse Beach Park 03.26.24 Web

Lighthouse Beach Park on March 26, 2024

The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries will be getting a two-week pause from Lake Okeechobee releases starting March 30, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last week.

“The Army Corps hopes this decision will provide a greater chance for salinities to recover as we enter oyster spawning season,” said SCCF Policy Associate Allie Pecenka, adding that the Caloosahatchee estuary has been experiencing flows in the damaging range (over 2,600 cubic feet per second) for 38 days.

Prolonged exposure to low salinities associated with high freshwater flows can be detrimental to oysters, causing stress and mortality. SCCF’s Marine Lab has already documented dips in salinity in our watershed since Lake Okeechobee releases began on Feb. 17.

“This rest period comes at a critical time, when harmful discharges also have the potential to contribute to possible future algal blooms that are devastating to our coastal ecosystems and economies,” Pecenka said.

SCCF’s River, Estuary, and Coastal Observing Network (RECON) sensors have observed an uptick in phycocyanin, an early indicator of blue-green algae, near Lake Okeechobee and the Alva Boat Ramp near the Franklin Lock & Dam. We are conducting further tests to verify if this increase is tied to Lake O releases.

graph of phycocyanin

These results are tentative in nature, and further testing is required to confirm. 

After the two-week rest period, the Army Corps is likely to resume releases through June 1, though at slightly reduced levels based on their current proposals.

The USACE’s proposed Lake Okeechobee release schedules for April 13-June 1, 2024, which were presented at a periodic scientists call on March 26.

The restarting of lake releases highlights the precarious position that the lake and estuary are in. As we move closer to the rainy season, and water temperatures warm, it is necessary to balance the needs of lowering the lake with the risk associated with massive harmful blue-green algal blooms being transported into the northern estuaries.  

ECONOMIC REPORT: Another bad harmful algal bloom could cost Southwest Florida $5.2 billion >>

“They are modeling various scenarios to lower the lake while attempting to maintain the salinity gradient required for healthy estuaries and mitigating impacts to the coasts,” Pecenka said. “SCCF is still concerned with the duration of the suggested release schedule, because sustained high-volume discharges can have cascading effects for generations on the estuary, its wildlife, and our coastal communities. We’re still continuing to recover from Hurricane Ian every day, and we cannot afford to experience another harmful algal bloom.”

Stay informed by subscribing to SCCF’s Weekly Water Conditions Tracker and Caloosahatchee Conditions Reports.

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