Fourteen weeks of lake water releases to the west were stopped in March because of Lake Okeechobee's declining water levels.
Resuming those water releases, at a reduced volume, could create an added water supply strain in South Florida if the winter-to-spring dry season lingers longer than expected.
"It's really a risk analysis," said Melissa Meeker, district executive director. "We can't get the water back."
The releases could end up taking more than half a foot of water off the lake over 30 days, in addition to the lake's steady decline from evaporation and other water supply uses.
The Army Corps of Engineers has the final say on whether to resume lake releases and that decision could come Friday.
Without more lake water, West Coast communities face increased algae blooms that threaten water quality and by extension tourism.
A drinking water treatment plant serving Fort Meyers that draws from the Caloosahatchee River already had to go off line because of spiking salinity levels.
“We have to come (and) beg for every drop of water that we get,” said
Sugar cane growers and other farmers rely on Lake Okeechobee water for irrigation and the lake also is a back-up drinking water supply for South Florida communities.
If the lake drops too low that can trigger emergency watering restrictions that limit irrigation for farms and lawns alike.
South Florida agricultural representatives Thursday warned against a return to the larger volume weekly lake water releases that had been flowing in the Caloosahatchee for much of the year.
"There just isn't enough water," said Tom MacVicar, a consultant for sugar cane growers and other agricultural interest.
Draining Lake Okeechobee water to the east and west is usually done for flood control, to lower the lake during the summer rainy season and ease the strain on its 70-year-old dike. That brings a larger flush of water that can have damaging environmental effects on coastal estuaries.
But during the dry season, the Caloosahatchee River benefits from a lower volume infusion of fresh water from the lake. That can counterbalance spiking saltwater levels that threaten the health of sea grass and oyster beds, which provide vital marine habitat.
Until the last week of March, the Caloosahatchee River was getting an average of about 291 million gallons per day of Lake Okeechobee water. That's enough to fill more than 441 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day.
The new plan calls for allowing a renewed infusion of water, but over shorter time periods. That could include three-day cycles of water releases into the Caloosahatchee as needed to break up algae blooms, which can lead to fish kills and make water unsafe for human use.
"We need to do something," said Daniel DeLisi, who represents southwest Florida on the district's nine-member board.
Lake Okeechobee on Thursday was 11.93 feet above sea level, more than two feet below normal. But that's still slightly higher than this time last year, with the summer rainy season approaching.
If rains don't increase, district projections show that Lake Okeechobee water levels in May could drop to the point that triggers emergency watering restrictions.
Long-term plans call for building a reservoir that could deliver water during the Caloosahatchee's times of needs, instead of relying on the lake.