Instead of receding in the “dry” season, Lake Okeechobee is rising. Recent rainfall pushed the level of Lake Okeechobee over 16 feet.
On Friday, Jan. 12, Lake O was 16.05 feet. On Wednesday, Jan. 17, Lake Okeechobee was at 16.18 feet above sea level.
According to the South Florida Water Management District data, for the seven-day period Jan. 8-14, direct rainfall added 40,750 acre feet to Lake O and inflows totaled 30,020 acre feet. At the same time, outflows to the Caloosahatchee River were 11,400 acre feet; flow south was 350 acre feet and evapotranspiration (a combination of evaporation and plant transpiration) took up 17,330 acre feet.
With more water coming in that going out, the lake level rises.
To the west, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has set the target flow for the Caloosahatchee River at 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which is within the beneficial flow range to keep the salinity levels in the optimal range in the estuary. Flow is measured at the W.P. Franklin Lock, which is more than 43 miles from Moore Haven where lake water enters the river through the Julian Keen Jr. Lock. If local basin runoff meets or exceeds the target flow, no lake water is released to the river.
South of the lake, recent rainfall has kept the water conservation areas (WCAs) above their regulation schedules. With direct rainfall taking up the capacity in the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) and WCAs, little lake water can flow south. In addition, the rainfall means lake water is not needed for crop irrigation or for urban water supply.
The high lake level continues to be the result of water management decisions following Hurricane Ian, which hit the Sunshine State in September 2022. Heavy rainfall from Ian left the urban area of Orlando/Kissimmee in danger. To prevent flooding damage to more than 10,000 homes, USACE and SFWMD used massive pumps to send flood waters rapidly down the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the Kissimmee River and into Lake Okeechobee, causing the big lake to rise rapidly. As a result, the lake level has remained high for more than year. During the 2022-2023 dry season, although the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule of 2008 (LORS-08) called for releases east and west, USACE opted to use “operational flexibility” in the water management plan to “bank” the equivalent of 2 feet of water in Lake Okeechobee in order to protect the coastal estuaries from excessive freshwater releases.
Lake Okeechobee needs seasonal lows for sunlight to reach the lake bottom for new submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to grow. Once new SAV has sprouted, it is also important that the lake does not rise faster than the plants can grow. The SAV is the lake’s natural filter system. It also provides habitat for fish and wildlife.
According to RECOVER, the lake’s normal ecological envelope ranges from 12 feet at the end of the dry season to 15 feet at the end of the wet season. The lake’s recovery envelope uses a low of 11.5 to 12.5 and a high of 14.5 to 15.5.
RECOVER (REstoration COordination & VERification) is a multi-agency team of scientists, modelers, planners and resource specialists who organize and apply scientific and technical information in ways that are essential in supporting the objectives of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The lowest lake level in 2023 was 13.7 feet. Ending the dry season at 13.7 feet, the lake level steadily rose to over 16 feet. The 2023-2024 winter dry season has experienced above average rainfall, giving the lake no relief from the high water level.
“This continues to get more depressing,” shared Scott Martin on the Anglers for Lake Okeechobee social media. “Lake Okeechobee is very high. Kissimmee Chain is blowing over the banks at just under full pool. More predicted upcoming winter precipitation and locks on the Kissimmee River now moving substantial water south. Chances that Okeechobee could be discharged enough to get to levels where SAV will begin to reestablish are extremely slim, if not completely impossible for 2024.”