After the driest September on record, Lake Okeechobee is approaching levels not seen since 2011 when Florida experienced drought conditions that were the worst witnessed in a century. Regionally, Lake O. serves several key roles. First, it is an indicator for water conditions, and when it reaches certain levels, water restrictions are implemented. Second, it is an important water source for both agricultural irrigation and drinking water in the southern part of the state. Third, it serves as a source of water for the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary during dry periods with those water releases coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers. However, when water levels are too low, the planned water releases to the estuary cease.
The water releases from Lake Okeechobee have been debated for many years as they are either too much for the estuary during the wet season or too little during the dry season or times of drought. According to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, “damaging high flows wash the estuary nursery out of the river into the Gulf of Mexico and dump harmful levels of excess nutrients and colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) that harms seagrass, habitat and water quality.” Conversely, the dry seasons prompt increases in salinity to the point of damaging the freshwater habitat, killing fish and triggering algal blooms.
The releases stopped over the summer but resumed in October as the Army Corps of Engineers attempts to maintain some consistency to the flow of water for the Caloosahatchee. For now, the releases will continue as the South Florida Water Management District has said Lake O is not at a level low enough to prompt restrictions.
 “Caloosahatchee Condition Reports.” SCCF, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, 2019, www.sccf.org/water-quality/caloosahatchee-condition-reports.
Photo Credit: ap0013, Flickr
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