The Caloosahatchee River and Estuary are west coast treasures, enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. Recognizing that the health of the river and its estuary is essential to the overall way of life for area residents, the South Florida Water Management District considers protection and improvement of the Caloosahatchee watershed an agency priority.
Extensive historical modifications to the Caloosahatchee River and its watershed have altered the hydrology of the region. As a result, heavy rainfall can bring large influxes of fresh water into the Caloosahatchee Estuary from stormwater runoff within the basin, Lake Okeechobee releases or both. The increased freshwater flows affect salinity levels and water quality in the estuary, potentially causing environmental harm.
To address these issues, the South Florida Water Management District is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal, state and local partners on a variety of strategies to improve the health of the Caloosahatchee Estuary.
Where is the Latest Data for the Caloosahatchee?
Using SFWMD's monitoring network and technical information, a wealth of data is available on this website for the District's 16-county region, including the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary:
Operational Planning – Find weekly operational reports and other information on the current state of the system and water control operations, including water quality and environmental conditions such as salinity levels, Lake Okeechobee water control structure operations recommendations, rainfall outlook models and more.
Live Data – Check real-time water levels in lakes, canals and waterways or see whether coastal gates and other water control structures are open or closed.
Rainfall Maps – See maps with historical rainfall totals, current radar-based rainfall estimates and more.
DBHYDRO – Search this extensive environmental database for historical or up-to-date surface or groundwater information, as well as meteorological, hydrogeological and water quality data.
Data and Reports from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Beginning in the late 19th century, the Caloosahatchee River and its watershed underwent extensive modifications that drastically altered the hydrology of the region. The once shallow and crooked river was deepened and widened into a regulated waterway that was connected to Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes for navigation, water supply and flood control purposes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages Lake Okeechobee water levels with the goal of balancing flood control, public safety, navigation, water supply and ecological health. The Corps bases operational decisions – whether to retain or release water in the massive lake – on its regulation schedule and the best available science and data provided by its staff and a variety of partners, including the South Florida Water Management District.
In a fixed regional water management system with limited storage, the Corps must sometimes release water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers to protect public safety when lake levels get too high. Under its revised 2008 regulation schedule, the Corps strives to maintain Lake Okeechobee's water level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet NGVD, in part to protect the integrity of the aging Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the lake. The lake's water level can rise up to six times faster than water can be discharged.
Historically, Lake Okeechobee overflowed its natural banks and sent a sheet flow of water south through the expansive Everglades all the way to Florida Bay. In today's managed system, a number of constraints limit how much water can be sent through canals and structures from the lake to the remnant Everglades. more »
Constraints on water managers ability to send water south from the lake to the Everglades include:
Limited conveyance capacity in existing canals and structures
Vegetation conditions and construction activities in Everglades Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs)
STA water levels and operations, as well as legal implications related to phosphorus loading rates and STA performance
Downstream capacity for discharge into the Everglades Water Conservation Areas
Federal requirements in the Endangered Species and Migratory Bird Treaty acts
Strategies for Improving the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary
The District and our local, state and federal partners have numerous efforts under way to improve water quality in the Caloosahatchee and better manage the timing and quantity of water flows from Lake Okeechobee. The District continues to work with the Corps to optimize water management strategies that may provide incremental improvements for both the estuary and the lake. We are also implementing short- and long-term solutions for improving the health of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary while balancing regional flood control, water supply and environmental needs for South Florida's 8.1 million residents.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages Lake Okeechobee water levels with the goal of balancing flood control, public safety, navigation, water supply and ecological health. The Corps bases operational decisions – whether to retain or release water in the 730-square-mile lake – on its regulation schedule and the best available science and data provided by its staff and a variety of partners, including the South Florida Water Management District. Rehabilitation of the 75-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike is a Corps top safety priority. In spring 2013, the Corps' Jacksonville District completed construction of a cutoff wall in the dike's most vulnerable area, a 22-mile section between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade. Work is also under way to replace or remove a series of culverts installed around the lake.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may need to decrease the probability of the water level rising to an elevation that could threaten the stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike. The lake's water level can rise up to six times faster than water can be discharged. The Corps strives to maintain Lake Okeechobee's water level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet NGVD. By initially prescribing low-volume releases, the regulation schedule reduces the frequency of larger releases that have greater impact on receiving water bodies. However, if inflows and levels continue to increase, larger releases are required. The Corps continuously monitors the effects of direct rainfall and any releases on the primary waterways and the receiving estuaries. The Corps confers with its partner agencies and stakeholders to modify releases to help minimize impacts to waterway communities and coastal waters.
To assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in furthering lake management goals, the South Florida Water Management District continues to provide unique scientific expertise and data for assessing the ecological health of Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and their surrounding ecosystems.
Sending more water south from Lake Okeechobee is physically limited by the capacity of South Florida's flood control system of canals and water control structures. This system was built many decades ago to send excess Lake Okeechobee water east and west to the coasts instead of south to the Everglades.
Further, sending nutrient-rich water south risks harming Everglades water quality, potentially violating federal court orders.
Sending more water south into the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) risks damaging their ability to perform as treatment wetlands and could violate state and federal regulations.
Sending more water south into the three Water Conservation Areas jeopardizes flood control for Broward and Miami-Dade residents and can cause damage to habitat and wildlife.
In addition, federal regulations that protect endangered wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, prohibit certain operations that could increase flows south.
In making its management decisions for lake releases, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must balance flood control, public safety around the lake's Herbert Hoover Dike, navigation and water supply — in addition to considering impacts to the estuaries. Because Lake Okeechobee's water level can rise up to six times faster than water can be released through the canal system, large-volume lake releases are sometimes required, as we saw in the summer of 2013 and its historic rainfall.
Vast tracts of land plus massive pumps and water control structures would be needed to build a flow-way south of Lake Okeechobee — a multibillion-dollar effort. Science and modeling show that the Central Everglades Planning Project accomplishes the same goal of sending more water south and providing relief to the estuaries — in a more achievable and cost-effective way.
The scale of ecosystem restoration in South Florida is one of the largest environmental restoration efforts in the world. Achieving the right water quality and water quantity in the right locations with the right timing is the ultimate goal. This is complicated by factors such as unpredictable weather — including extreme rainfall or prolonged drought — and by policy issues that determine where funding and projects are needed most.
South Florida's environment has the benefit of many caring and involved stakeholders. To ultimately be successful, restoration must be a cooperative effort among many partners.
Caloosahatchee Science Workshop and Community Forums
The South Florida Water Management District is undertaking a public initiative to engage key stakeholders in developing and advancing a list of priority projects that will benefit the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary.
The initial step in this process involved in-depth interviews with more than 40 stakeholders for a Caloosahatchee vision study led by the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), a not-for-profit group with extensive experience mediating water-related environmental issues in Florida and elsewhere. You are invited to view the Final Stakeholder Assessment Report that contains CBI's main interview findings and recommendations for moving forward.
Based on the report's recommendations, a multi-day science workshop was held in November 2013, and the District initiated a series of community meetings (additional details below).
Throughout 2014, working meetings were held by the "implementing" organizations at the municipal, county and state levels to identify local and regional projects that diverse stakeholders from across the watershed could consider and potentially support. Those projects were then presented, discussed and prioritized at two community-wide public forums.
The results of the two-year process are summarized in the Caloosahatchee River Visioning Process Final Report that was prepared by CBI. The final report provides an overview of the process, details the stakeholder concerns, identifies community priorities and recommends steps for moving forward.
The Caloosahatchee Community Forums will bring together multiple agencies, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, local governments and other interested stakeholders to share and collaborate on science, projects and priorities. The first workshops will focus on developing stakeholder support for the implementation of the Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan.
Staff from CBI will facilitate a process that will engage local governments, state agencies and key stakeholder groups to prioritize specific projects that will benefit the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. The intent is to identify a realistic and achievable set of short- to medium-term concrete steps that can contribute to improving water quality, quantity and timing of freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee River.
Hosted by Florida Gulf Coast University's Coastal Watershed Institute, the Caloosahatchee Science Workshop brought together scientists for invited talks and presentations on specific topics, such as historic alterations and their effects on system components and the current state of the system. The workshop also included facilitated group discussions on specific topics, such as ecological indicators, research/data gaps and science priorities. Among other things, the information generated at the workshop will be used to update and confirm the current state of scientific knowledge about the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, identify information gaps, verify ecological indicators and provide a science framework to guide Community Forums and other relevant discussions.