Lake Okee­chobee's trou­bled dike

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - VOICES & OPINION -

Lake Okee­chobee’s ris­ing wa­ters once again threaten to over­whelm the leaky mound of rock, shell and sand re­lied on to pro­tect South Flor­ida from flood­ing.

With the lake hit­ting its high­est level in 12 years, Gov. Rick Scott has re­newed his call for Con­gress to jump-start re­pairs of the lake’s more-than-70-year-old earthen dike, which is con­sid­ered one of the coun­try’s most at-risk of fail­ing.

As the lake’s level keeps ris­ing, dark plumes of pol­luted water again are be­ing re­leased into rivers that drain to­ward Flor­ida’s coasts – threat­en­ing to fuel toxic al­gae blooms, kill fish­ing grounds and de­press tourism.

Scott on Mon­day vis­ited Lake Okee­chobee and said fed­eral of­fi­cials should “do their job” and speed up re­pairs. “I am con­cerned that the water is this high,” he said. “I am con­cerned that we haven’t had more money put into this.”

It’s a warn­ing Scott has made many times be­fore. And it’s a con­cern long echoed by South Flor­ida elected of­fi­cials, res­i­dents and busi­ness lead­ers in ar­eas at risk of lake flood­ing.

Con­gress must step up. More money is needed to speed dike re­pair, which at its cur­rent pace won’t get done un­til 2025. That’s way too long to fix a dike that en­gi­neers warned in 2006 posed “a grave and im­mi­nent dan­ger to the peo­ple and the en­vi­ron­ment of South Flor­ida.”

Let’s re­call that Lake Okee­chobee flood­ing in 1926 and 1928 killed more than 3,000 peo­ple and prompted construction of the dike.

Re­in­forc­ing the ag­ing, 30-foot-tall em­bank­ments is a pub­lic safety im­per­a­tive. That’s why the Flor­ida Leg­is­la­ture this year ap­proved $50 mil­lion to help with dike re­pairs.

Still, the fund­ing is far from enough. Dike rehab has al­ready cost about $870 mil­lion since 2001, and nearly $1 bil­lion more is needed to fin­ish the job. And that’s not all that’s needed. Even with a re­paired dike, the lake is not big enough to hold all the water that rains down and drains in from Cen­tral Flor­ida.

With­out cre­at­ing more water stor­age al­ter­na­tives, ris­ing lake wa­ters could still trig­ger the dam­ag­ing drain­ing that fouls wa­ter­ways on the east and west coasts.

That’s why state law­mak­ers also ap­proved a $1.5 bil­lion pro­posal this year to team with the fed­eral govern­ment to build a reser­voir south of the lake. Get­ting that reser­voir built re­quires Con­gress to agree to pay for half – at the same time Flor­ida seeks more fed­eral money to fix the dike.

The Army Corps of En­gi­neers, which op­er­ates and main­tains the dike, says work com­pleted on the south­east­ern por­tion has im­proved pub­lic safety. The agency un­der­stands the need for ur­gency, says spokesman John Camp­bell, but go­ing faster re­quires more fund­ing.

Hur­ri­cane Irma re­minded us of the need to move faster. When Irma looked like it was headed straight for the lake, evac­u­a­tions were or­dered for Pa­ho­kee, Belle Glade and other lake­side towns be­cause of fears the storm could be too much for the dike.

Scott on Mon­day again blamed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion for fail­ing to spend more to fix Lake Okee­chobee’s dike, but it’s re­ally Scott’s fel­low Repub­li­cans in Con­gress who have failed to send more money south.

Con­gres­sional fund­ing for the dike dur­ing the past five years has av­er­aged about $90 mil­lion a year, no mat­ter who was in the White House. It would take about $200 mil­lion a year to fin­ish the job by the gover­nor’s 2022 goal, the Army Corps says.

Speed­ing up dike re­pairs and sign­ing onto the reser­voir plan are nec­es­sary next steps for Con­gress.

But the long-term so­lu­tion in­volves send­ing more of Lake Okee­chobee’s water flow­ing south — like it did be­fore the dike and a vast net­work of canals, lev­ees and pumps drained South Flor­ida to make more room for sugar cane and sub­di­vi­sions.

To ad­dress some of the en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age that was caused, the state and fed­eral govern­ment are part­ner­ing on a $16 bil­lion Ever­glades restora­tion plan to clean up water pol­lu­tion and send more water south.

How­ever, the gover­nor has bris­tled at buy­ing more land south of the lake to al­low a more nat­u­ral flow south. And the sugar in­dus­try, which sold off prop­er­ties in the past for restora­tion, now balks at part­ing with more real es­tate.

Mean­while, a new state pro­posal to ex­plore pump­ing lake water deep un­der­ground risks side­track­ing ef­forts to get more water flow­ing into the Ever­glades. It also risks trad­ing coastal al­gae blooms for the pos­si­ble con­tam­i­na­tion of un­der­ground drink­ing water sup­plies.

Fix­ing the over­all prob­lem will re­quire the ac­qui­si­tion of more land to get more Lake Okee­chobee water flow­ing south to the Ever­glades.

And it’s go­ing to take more money from Con­gress to pay for the costly con­se­quences of mess­ing with Mother Na­ture.

Edi­to­ri­als are the opin­ion of the Sun Sen­tinel Editorial Board and writ­ten by one of its mem­bers or a de­signee. The Editorial Board con­sists of Editorial Page Edi­tor Rose­mary O'Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid, Deborah Ramirez and Edi­tor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.

Speed­ing up dike re­pairs and the reser­voir plan are nec­es­sary next steps

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