Lake Okeechobee's troubled dike
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.
Speeding up dike repairs and the reservoir plan are necessary next steps