STUART, Fla. — Despite the higher-than-normal water levels at Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers has not had to discharge any water east to lower the lake, according to Colonel James Booth with the agency's Jacksonville division.
Booth began his weekly media calls Friday allowing members of the media to ask questions about the lake, discharges and algae levels during the rainy season.
According to the latest report from South Florida Water Management (SFWM), the lake is at 14 feet, which Booth said is 1.25 feet higher than it was last year, and 2 feet above the 12-foot threshold that the Corps aimed it to be at by the rainy season.
The high water level comes as South Florida Water Management identified bloom potentials of 65-70% in Lake Okeechobee, a significant increase from prior weeks. Also, the Pahokee Marina is under a health advisory due to significant booms.
According to SFWM, out of 36 samples taken from the lake, 11 tested positive for toxins.
Fortunately, because of the high water levels, Booth said the Corps has not had to discharge any water east.
He said with the reinforced infrastructure of the Herbert Hoover Dike, the lake can hold up to 16.5 feet of water before the Corps considers the level "critically high."
Still, Booth said if water levels continue to rise, algae or not, if they get to that level, the Corps will have to discharge in small amounts.
"How big may those discharges be and how frequent?" asked WPTV reporter Kate Hussey.
"It goes back to how much precipitation and how high the lake levels get," Booth said. "What's different now from our perspective, Herbert Hoover Dike is very strong now, we don't have to make those lower level releases, so we can hold water in the lake longer with more confidence. That's what's going to be different this wet season."
Booth also said they make these decisions on a week-by-week basis, and if they do get to a critical level, they will try to limit the discharges as much as possible. However, he added we're nowhere near that yet.
WPTV also checked in on the launch of the new water release schedule called LOSOM. It's meant to divert more water south and limit discharges east, including in the St. Lucie River, by at least 35%.
Earlier this year, the Corps announced the new schedule was delayed, partly due to infrastructure issues, Booth said during the call. However, he said he feels confident the new schedule will be in effect by December of this year or by January 2024.
Booth also added, even though they are still operating under the LORS 2008 schedule, they have been able to significantly limit the discharges, and again, make decisions on a weekly basis based on the water level and significance of algae.
"We operate at the conditions knowing the dike has been restored and that allows more flexibility with the releases," Booth said.
As for Pahokee, executive director for South Florida Water Management, Drew Bartlett, also joined the call and said a rapid response team was deployed several times to Pahokee to address and treat the algae, including pumping the water.
Bartlett said that's helped prevent the algae from caking — as it has in major algal events in the past.