Releases from Lake Okeechobee, which typically happen when the lake is high, were paused through late March. The lake is crucial to flood control.

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. – Lake Okeechobee is on track to start the wet season above 14 feet in June. What does that mean for the coming hurricane season?

Despite the approach of one of the worst hurricane seasons ever predicted, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stopped the large-scale releases from Lake Okeechobee, an effort designed to lower the big lake before the storm season hits.

Colorado State University tropical meteorology Project predicts 23 named storms with 11 hurricanes in 2024. Forecasters predict five of the hurricanes will reach Category 3 or stronger.

The report, released April 4, predicts the highest number of storms forecast since 1996.

The El Nino weather pattern, which brought higher than normal rainfall during Florida’s normal “wet” season is expected to become a La Nina weather pattern, which usually enhances the chance of tropical storms.

Forecasters also point to record warm water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, which could increase both the number and severity of storms.

Despite concerns for the increased danger of flooding in the coming hurricane season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) reverted to the earlier dry season strategy, with no lake releases east to the St. Lucie River and releases to the Caloosa-hatchee River limited to beneficial flow.

In an April 5 media briefing, Major Cory Bell, deputy commander for the USACE Jacksonville District, said lake releases to the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie were paused March 30 to give the coastal estuaries a chance to recover. High volume freshwater releases lower the salinity in the estuaries which can damage the ecosystems.

Before March 30, rainfall in the Caloo-sahatchee River basin was sufficient to provide freshwater flow to the river. However, since that date, the area has been dry, Bell explained. He said there was zero flow at the Ortona Lock and W.P. Franklin Lock for several days, This stagnant condition increases the risk of algal blooms.

Starting April 6, the corps resumed releases to the Caloosahatchee River at a flow rate of 650 cubic feet per second, measured at the W.P. Franklin Lock. During the dry season, the river often needs freshwater flow from Lake O to prevent the salinity level in the estuary from rising too high. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has set the minimum flow target at the W.P. Franklin Lock at 457 cfs. In the past, Lee County officials have asked for a minimum of 800 to 1, 000 cfs.

Bell said after consulting with SFWMD scientists, as well as Lee County and Sani-bel-Captiva officials, USACE set the target flow rate for the Caloo-sahatchee at the beneficial flow rate 2, 000 cfs, starting April 13. This flow is a combination of local basin runoff and lake releases (if needed). The Franklin Lock is more than 40 miles from the Julian Keen Jr. Lock at Moore Haven, where lake water enters the river. If local basin runoff meets or exceeds the 2, 000 cfs target, no water will be released from Lake O. USACE will not release any lake water to the St. Lucie, Bell said, unless FPL needs lake water for its cooling pond. Some lake water may be released to the St. Lucie Canal if needed for water supply in that basin or to keep the canal at the optimal depth for navigation of 14 feet to 14.5 feet.

South of Lake Okeechobee, flow under the Tamiami Trail was averaging about 1, 800 cfs on April 5, Bell said.

USACE closed the S-12 A and B water control structures on April 1, as required by federal law to protect the nesting area of a sub-population of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.

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Author: amyc