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  • Katrina Elsken Lake Okeechobee News

If we fail Lake O, we fail the Everglades

Consider: You walk into your bathroom and discover the bathtub is overflowing. What do you do?


Most people would first turn off the tap.


I say “most people,” because at a 2019 meeting of the county commissioners from around the lake, when I posed that question to a representative from Congressman Brian Mast’s office, his answer was “flush the toilet.” 



A few people might say, “pull the drain plug!” But what if you pull the plug and the tub is still overflowing because the water is coming in faster than it can go down the drain?

That’s what’s happening with Lake Okeechobee. Water is coming in too fast.  That's why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are releasing lake water east to the St. Lucie Canal and west to the Caloosahatchee River.



According to the U.S. Geological Survey, before the canals were dug for flood control between Orlando and the big lake, rain that fell at the top of the watershed near Shingle Creek (just south of Orlando) took six months to slowly sheetflow south into the lake. Along the way, some of that water percolated into the earth and some evaporated into the air or was taken up by plants. Along the way, that water was cleaned by the vegetation on a river floodplain that was sometimes several miles wide.


To accommodate the development that allows millions of people to live in South Florida, the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Flood Control Project was designed to move water quickly away from the urban areas, down the Kissimmee River and into Lake Okeechobee. This increased the speed, the volume of water and nutrient load in the water flowing into the Big O.


Water is now flowing in many times faster than it did naturally.


Another change to the natural system was the diking of Lake Okeechobee. This project came after thousands died in the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928. Initially it was meant to be just a means of wet season flood protection.


Meanwhile, south of the lake, as South Florida Water Management Governing Board Member “Alligator Ron” Bergeron is fond of explaining, “we separated the half of the Everglades we decided to keep,” from the parts of the Everglades to be developed. The East Coast Protection Levee was built from West Palm Beach to Miami so that about 20% of the historic Everglades could be developed into urban areas. Directly south of Lake Okeechobee, a little less than 30% of the original Everglades was set aside for farming. The farming area, known as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) has shrunk as about a quarter of the land in the EAA is now in state or federal ownership for use in Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects. So about 22% of the original Everglades is in farms. Meanwhile, the urban areas have been built up, and one 8.5 square mile area on the west side of the East Coast Protection Levee was developed.


As Bergeron often explains, that means that south of the lake, we’re trying to put 100% of the water runoff on 50% of the original area.


But it’s worse than that.


Before the flood control projects, there was less water going into Lake O. As the rainwater slowly sheetflowed south, it was on the land long enough for some of that water to percolate into the earth to replenish the aquifer and some to be taken up by evaporation. Thanks to flood control and development, more water is moving into Lake Okeechobee, faster and dirtier than ever.


Moving lake water out of the lake to the south is not so simple. There are canals to convey water through the EAA, but what then?


There’s a roadblock to sending water south – an actual road blocking the flow. It’s called the Tamiami Trail. It runs from Tampa to Miami, bisecting the original Everglades. When it was originally built, it was closed in the wet season because water flowed over the road. As traffic became heavier – and vehicles became heavier – the road was built up. Some parts of the road have been bridged and there are some culverts to allow some water under the road, and more raised areas are planned. But even with the additional structures, it won’t be enough.


In addition, thanks to a Federal Consent Decree, water managers can’t allow flow under the Tamiami Trail into Everglades National Park until it has been cleaned to not more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorus. Water is coming into Lake O as high as 200 ppb.

So, what’s the answer?


East Coast residents like to chant: “Send it South!” But that’s not physically possible. It would also violate federal law.


Anglers for Lake Okeechobee urge: “Slow the Flow.”  The natural flow into the lake was much slower. Restoring that natural flow requires building in storage north of the lake. Northern storage would also give water managers the option to clean the water before it goes into the lake. Every gallon of water stored north of the lake is a gallon of water that won’t be released into the coastal estuaries. Water stored north of the lake is also water that would be available for water supply during a drought.



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