Lake Okeechobee

The Army Corps of Engineers is considering releasing more Lake Okeechobee water west into the Caloosahatchee River to provide freshwater needed to protect marine habitat. (By JaxStrong)

Increased Lake Okeechobee water discharges to improve environmental conditions on the West Coast could leave less water to backup South Florida supplies if severe drought conditions return.

Lake Okeechobee is South Florida’s primary backup water supply, relied on to irrigate farmland and boost regional drinking water supplies in addition to providing key wildlife habitat.

Lake water also gets discharged east and west out to sea. That’s usually for flood control, but also to provide an infusion of freshwater during the dry season to protect marine habitat in the Caloosahatchee River.

Those Lake Okeechobee water releases west into the Caloosahatchee River have been ongoing since December and this week the Army Corps of Engineers is considering sending more lake water into the river.

The proposal would increase those lake discharges 44 percent, averaging more than 400 million gallons of water per day from the lake to the Caloosahatchee. That’s enough to fill more than 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"Even though it sounds like a lot … it only takes a few tenths of an inch off the lake," corps spokesman John Campbell said. "(The water releases) are very important for the Caloosahatchee River."

Releasing lake water into the Caloosahatchee River during dry times helps counterbalance rising saltwater levels in that coastal estuary, which threaten the health of sea grass and oyster beds that provide vital marine habitat.

But the push for increased lake releases to the west comes after South Florida saw its driest January since record keeping began in 1932. South Florida averaged just .16 inches of rain last month, about 9 percent the average total.

Lake Okeechobee on Thursday was 13.22 feet above sea level, more than one foot below normal but within the 12.5 to 13.5 foot range that the Army Corps of Engineers tries to maintain.

Safety concerns about the 70-year-old, earthen dike that protects lakeside communities from flooding prompt the Army Corps of Engineers to limit how much water can be stored in Lake Okeechobee.

Decisions to discharge Lake Okeechobee water to the east and west during 2011 and 2010 dumped hundreds of billions of gallons of water out to sea. That ended up worsening the water supply effects of a drought that last year triggered emergency watering restrictions from Orlando to the Keys.

Lack of reservoirs and other water storage options lead to dumping much of the stormwater that drains into Lake Okeechobee out to sea, to avoid flooding South Florida farms and neighborhoods built on land that used to be part of the Everglades.