To lessen Lake Okeechobee flooding threats, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to more than double the amount of lake water being dumped out to sea.
Concerns about the safety of the lake’s 70-year-old dike prompted the Army Corps on Sept. 19 to start draining lake water to the coast to slow the lake’s rise.
But despite dumping billions of gallons of water, the lake has risen half a foot since the draining started.
On Wednesday, the Army Corps announced it would increase releases to as much as 3.7 billion gallons of water per day.
While draining lake water helps protect the dike, it wastes water relied on to backup South Florida water supplies during the typically dry winter and spring. Also, dumping lake water can lead to fish kills and other damaging environmental consequences for coastal estuaries.
The Army Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. On Wednesday the lake was 15.69 feet.
Tropical Storm Isaac in August and the rainy September that followed delivered the influx of water that has Lake Okeechobee rising.
How long lake releases will continue remains a "day by day" decision, said Lt. Col. Tom Greco, Jacksonville District Deputy Commander for South Florida.
"We just haven’t seen the results that we wanted to," Greco said. "We still have a lot of inflow into the lake."
Oyster reefs, relied on as vital marine habitat, are already suffering from the infusion of lake water that throws off the delicate mix of saltwater and freshwater in the Indian River Lagoon. Damage to sea grass beds, algae blooms and fish kills could follow as lake discharges continue.
Lake Okeechobee used to naturally overlap the southern shore and flow south to replenish the Everglades.
But levees, canals and other flood control measures that drained the land to made way for development and farming now corral lake water and flush it out to sea when the lake threatens to get too high for the levee.