When will Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River end?

By Tyler Treadway
October 18, 2016
TC Palm

DischargeStLucielocksLake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River could decrease again Friday, but likely won’t stop yet.

At a conference call Tuesday with government and nonprofit agency scientists from throughout South Florida, Army Corps of Engineers officials seemed ready to accept requests to cut discharges from 1.16 billion gallons a day to about 750 million gallons a day.

It’s a significant drop: Blue-green algae from the lake started blooming in the river in early summer, just after discharges were raised to 1.1 billion gallons a day.

Algae blooms aren’t as likely now thanks to cooler water and shorter days.

The corps could also return to “pulse” discharges designed to mimic the natural flow of water through the river after heavy rains: sending no lake water through the St. Lucie Lock and Dam over the weekend and increasing the flow through the week. The pulses were credited with helping increase salinity and preserving oyster colonies in the river during the late summer.

The corps is expected to announce the discharge rate for the coming week Thursday, but don’t expect releases to end completely, said corps spokesman John Campbell.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said.

But we’re close. Consider:

  •  Lake Okeechobee’s level is dropping and on Tuesday was less than 5 inches higher than the corps’ preferred level for this time of year.

Since peaking at 16 feet, 1⅞ inches Oct. 8, Lake O has been dropping slowly but surely. The lake elevation was 15 feet, 10¾ inches Tuesday morning. The corps prefers to maintain the lake between 12 feet, 6 inches at the beginning of summer — so there’s capacity to store water from summer rains, tropical storms and hurricanes — and 15 feet, 6 inches in mid- to late fall — so there’s stored water for irrigation through the winter dry season.

The 15½-foot maximum isn’t a hard and fast rule: In 2014, a year with no discharges, Lake O reached 16 feet on Oct. 23; and the corps held off on discharges, noting the start of the winter dry season was just around the corner.

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