In 2022, Hurricane Ian hit the Orlando area, dumping record rainfall. To save 10,000 homes from flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District went into action. They used giant pumps to push the water through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee.
This pushed the lake level up several feet. They saved 10,000 Orlando homes ... at the expense of Lake Okeechobee.
Hurricane Ian also damaged Lake Okeechobee, with high winds churning the water and tearing up the vegetation. The lake’s vegetation was not in good shape even before Ian hit. The lake’s own ecology needs seasonal low levels to allow the sunlight to reach the lake bottom and new submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to germinate. Lake O needs about 60 days below 12.5 feet for the SAV to recover. That SAV is the lake’s filter system. It’s also critical habitat for the lake’s fisheries. But during the 2022/2023 dry season, USACE prioritized the health of the coastal estuaries. While the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule of 2008 called for higher releases in the dry season, USACE opted to use their “operational flexibility” to “bank” water in the lake instead of releasing it.
They protected the coastal estuaries ... at the expense of Lake Okeechobee.
As a result, the lake did not get a chance to recover in 2023. The wet season started with a lake level at 13.7 feet and ended the wet season over 16 feet.
The “dry” season has started, but forecasts predict higher than normal rainfall. We’ve already seen that in November.
This dry season, once again, USACE plans to prioritize the health of the coastal estuaries and hold that excess water in the big lake. USACE officials have already admitted there is probably no chance the lake will get down to 12.5 feet in the next 12 months.
In 2024, the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) will go into effect. According to USACE and SFWMD scientists, LOSOM will be even worse for the Lake Okeechobee ecology than the current schedule has been. LOSOM allows even higher lake levels.
What about “send it south”? There are canals that could carry water from Lake Okeechobee south. But the water comes into the lake so fast and so high in phosphorus from the north that it must first be cleaned before it can be released under the Tamiami Trail into Everglades National Park. By federal consent decree, it must be less than 10 parts per billion (ppb) phosphorus.
Although Lake O is the liquid heart of the Everglades, the big lake doesn’t enjoy that same federal protection. When the more than 1 million acre feet of water was pumped south from Orlando/Kissimmee area after Ian, federal and state officials did not appear to be concerned about the phosphorus levels.
In addition, there's already too much water south of the lake and north of the Tamiami Trail.
During the 2023 wet season, Mother Nature dumped so much rainfall south of Lake Okeechobee the fur bearing animals in the portion of the Everglades north of the Tamiami Trail were drowning. Lake water can’t go south when the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) and water conservation areas (STAs) south of the lake are already at capacity. Even if the water meets the phosphorus standards, the limited flow under the Tamiami Trail is not sufficient to quickly move that water out of the WCAs into Everglades National Park. While the existing water control structures are being maximized, they just aren’t sufficient.