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Lake Water Levels

What does this mean?

In Florida, the level of a lake may be dependent upon many factors including weather patterns, surface soil types, nearby groundwater pumping, and hydrogeologic conditions, such as "perched" groundwater—water held in sands below the surface but typically separated from deeper groundwater by layers of clay, or even rock—and connection to deep aquifer sources (such as the Floridan aquifer).

Staff gage showing NAVD88 datum

Staff gage showing vertical datum. Source: SWFWMD

When the weather is dry, lake levels are often low and with abundant rain, lake levels generally rise. This is due to dependence of many Florida lakes on lateral seepage from perched groundwater systems into the lake. (“Perched” groundwater is a layer or pocket of groundwater that is segregated from the main water table by nonporous material like impermeable rock or clay.) Other lakes are highly dependent on available surface water, actual rainfall and/or stormwater runoff. A smaller number of Florida lakes are “spring fed,” meaning that their water supply is mostly from deep aquifer sources where water flows up and into the lake.

If you plan to build a lakefront home or a dock, it's a good idea to find out what the historic water levels are for a lake. Such information can be crucial to the success of your project. Failure to do so could result in unexpected flooding or the opposite; during drought conditions, some lakefront residents may be surprised to find their lake has suddenly shrunk out of sight.

Aside from weather patterns, there are a few other naturally occurring factors that can affect water levels. Geology can have a lot to do with a lake's ability to “hold” water. For instance, lakes with sandy or porous soils are more susceptible to losing water through seepage, whereas clay soils can act as a barrier and help lakes retain water. Evaporation is another major factor. For example, in central Florida, evaporation rates range from 25 inches to 50 inches per year!

Fluctuations in lake levels may also be the result of human activity such as water withdrawal for drinking and irrigation, channelization, dams, dredge and fill projects, and shoreline development.

Dock out of water due to low levels.

Dock out of water due to low levels.

So how does one know whether a lake level is low, high or “normal”? Thanks to a legislative mandate (Section 373.042 of the Florida Statutes), Florida's Water Management Districts are required to estimate minimum flows and levels (MFL): minimum water levels for lakes and minimum flows for streams. Each district has a section on its website with documents describing the analysis and results and the mandated flow/level for water bodies within its purview.

How are the data collected? (Methods)

Many lakes have automated systems that continuously measure water level and transmit the data to agencies that manage water resources. Water level data may also be collected manually by agency staff or by individuals who live on lakes. They read and record weekly and/or monthly water levels by reading the graduations on staff gages deployed by scientists in the lake but near the shoreline (see the image above of a staff gage).

Level measurements are reported in feet and are referenced to a vertical benchmark tied to mean sea level (MSL). For example, a lake level of 35.50 feet is 35 and 5/10 feet above mean sea level. Level measurement reference systems have been developed using vast elevation (level) data networks, such as NGVD (National Geodetic Vertical Datum) and more recently NAVD (North American Vertical Datum) General Adjustment (1988, 1991), and are used to ensure the accuracy and representative quality of level measurements throughout Florida and the world.

Water level standards (such as Minimum Flows and Levels) are reported with their geodetic reference; for example, if the minimum water level for a lake has been determined to be 32.25 ft (MSL), it would be reported as 32.25 ft (NAVD88).

More information about vertical datums can be found on the National Geodetic Survey's website.


While looking at the Water Levels section on this page, notice that four measurements are provided:

Caveats and Limitations

Not all lakes have been professionally surveyed and had a gage of some type installed. Water level data for water bodies with gaging stations may not always be accurate or available due to equipment damage, or mechanical or electrical problems that cause instrument errors. In some cases, water levels may drop so low that an accurate measurement can not be made without professionally resurveying the water body first. Be sure to check for gaps in data that might result from gaging problems before using water level data.

Also, it is important to remember that one should never jump to conclusions when comparing lakes, even lakes that are in close proximity. As discussed earlier, there are many factors that can affect a lake's water level. Even minor geologic or hydrologic differences can allow one lake to fill at a different rate than a neighboring lake.

For more information about the water level measurement and data, and minimum and maximum estimated water levels for your lake, contact your local Water Management District or visit its website.

Additional Information

An Edition of wateratlas.org

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