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  • Katrina Elsken Lake Okeechobee News

Lake O already high as hurricane season intensifies

With the most active part of the hurricane season just starting and Lake Okeechobee already at 15.35 feet above sea level, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could face some tough decisions.

During an Aug. 25 media briefing Col. James Booth, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District said USACE is monitoring an area of low pressure off the coast of Honduras which has a 70% chance of development into a tropical storm that could impact the west coast of Florida.

Last year, the runoff from rainfall from Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole added 4 feet of water to the big lake. Luckily for water managers, the lake was lower – just 12.5 feet above sea level – when Hurricane Ian hit.

Should a big storm hit this year, the lake has less capacity to hold additional water. If the lake rises above 16.5 feet and has not peaked, they would have to consider high volume releases to slow the rise and try to bring it back down, the colonel explained.

Booth said that 16.5 is not a magic number.

“Just because the lake cracks over 16.5 feet, it doesn’t mean we’ll make releases,” he explained.

“If we see multiple weeks of water level climb, I would be more likely to move into the high flows to arrest the rise of the lake and try to get it back down below 16.5 feet.

“It could take a few weeks for the water to come down from Orlando.” Booth said that after Hurricane Ian the corps helped the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) relieve flooding in the Orlando/Kissimmee area by pumping water down through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the Kissimmee River and sending it as quickly as possible to Lake O.

“We brought corps teams alongside SFWMD with some massive pumps to help move water around,” he said. “We believe we prevent potential flooding in upwards of 10,000 homes.”

Booth said thanks to the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike, “we’re super confident of that dike to handle significant storms.” He said if the lake reached 16.5 feet, they will inspect the dike more frequently.

If a storm hits, they will also inspect inside the water control structures inside the dike, he added because storms produce wake.

“As we move towards 16.5 and above our alert gets heightened and we are thinking more about dam and levee safety,” he said.

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