The St. Lucie River and Estuary is an ecological jewel on Florida's Treasure Coast that is integral to the environmental and economic well-being of Martin and St. Lucie counties. The St. Lucie is part of the larger Indian River Lagoon system, the most diverse estuarine environment in North America with more than 4,000 plant and animal species, including manatees, oysters, dolphins, sea turtles and seahorses.
Extensive historical modifications to the St. Lucie 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 St. Lucie 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 St. Lucie Estuary.
Where is the Latest Data for the St. Lucie?
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 St. Lucie 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
Historically, the St. Lucie was a freshwater river with no permanent connection to either the Atlantic Ocean or Lake Okeechobee. Beginning in the late 19th century, the river and its watershed underwent a series of modifications for navigation, flood control and water supply purposes.
As a result of these changes, the St. Lucie River is today part of the Central & Southern Florida Project, one of the world's largest interconnected public works systems. The C-44 Canal now connects Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the river. In addition, the C-23 and C-24 canals move stormwater runoff directly into the North Fork of the river instead of allowing the natural system to gradually absorb the water.
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 St. Lucie River and Estuary
The ecological health of the St. Lucie River and Estuary is essential to sustaining the overall way of life and economy of local communities. The District and its partners are developing short- and long-term solutions that are designed to improve water quality and better manage flows into the estuary by increasing water storage in the regional water management system and moving more clean water south to the Everglades.
Initiated in 1998 by the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Working Group, the St. Lucie River Issues Team represents 17 different federal, state and local governments, as well as agricultural and environmental organizations. The goal of the issues team is to accelerate and implement "ready-to-go" projects that provide immediate results toward improving water quality and ecosystem functions in the St. Lucie Estuary and Indian River Lagoon.
Since the inception of the issues team, the Florida Legislature has funded more than $63 million in its recommended projects in Martin and St. Lucie counties for the St. Lucie River. Additional funding has included more than $65 million from local partners and $2 million from the federal government. Accomplishments include the restoration of more than 4,671 acres of habitat, 4,358 acres of wetlands and 25,940 feet of shoreline throughout the watershed.
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.