Sun-Sentinel: Hurricane Sandy keeps Lake Okeechobee rising

Oct 29, 2012

The following article was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on October 29, 2012:

Hurricane Sandy Keeps Lake Okeechobee Rising

By Andy Reid

Hurricane Sandy’s weekend nudge to Lake Okeechobee‘s rising water levels add to flood control concerns with a month of storm season still to go.

Flooding threats from the fast-rising lake in September prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to start draining billions of gallons of lake water out to sea to ease the strain on its 70-year-old dike — considered one of the country’s most at risk of failing. But lake water levels have actually gone up nearly one foot since the draining started Sept. 19. That’s because South Florida’s vast drainage system of canals, pumps and levees fills up the lake faster than it can lower it.

The Army Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. On Monday, the lake was 15.91 above sea level.

“The storm didn’t give us that much of a bump [but] the Corps is nervous,” said Paul Gray, an Audubon of Florida scientist who monitors Lake Okeechobee. “We are kind of in a risky spot right now.”

The lake draining stopped briefly as Sandy passed and then resumed over the weekend with the Army Corps now attempting to dump nearly 3 billion gallons of water per day from the lake.

Dumping lake water out to sea lessens the pressure on the lake’s earthen dike, but it wastes water relied on to back up South Florida supplies during the typically dry winter and spring.

The deluge of water from the lake also delivers damaging environmental consequences to delicate coastal estuaries, fouling water quality in east and west coast fishing grounds.

Lakeside residents, who have seen the Herbert Hoover Dike weather decades of storms, don’t worry about lake water levels until they top 16 feet, Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser said.

“They can open those gates and shotgun that water straight to the ocean,” Sasser said. “It’s like feast or famine.”

Tropical Storm Isaac‘s soaking at the end of August started lake levels climbing. The steady rains of September and October that followed, capped by Sandy’s showers, kept the lake water rising even as the draining continued.

Sandy dropped as much as 3 inches of rainfall in parts of South Florida, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

Gray said Lake Okeechobee didn’t receive that much, but with the region already saturated any rainfall adds to the stormwater runoff flowing into the lake.

“We continue to receive a lot of water into the lake, and the discharges are important so we can continue to maintain storage capacity for the remaining five weeks of hurricane season,” said Lt. Col. Tom Greco, the Army Corps’ Deputy District Commander for South Florida.

Lake Okeechobee water once naturally overlapped its southern shores and flowed south to replenish the Everglades.

But decades of draining and pumping to make way for South Florida agriculture and development corralled the lake water; allowing the Army Corps to dump lake water west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucie River to drain it out to sea when water levels rises too high for the dike.

The infusion of lake water brings pollution and throws off the delicate balance of salt and fresh water in the estuaries. Dumping lake water since September already has fish leaving, oyster beds dying and fishermen staying away from the St. Lucie River, said Leon Abood, president of the Rivers Coalition.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Abood said. “It is a problem that has been plaguing this area for decades.”

Elevated lake water levels can also have damaging environmental consequences, drowning the aquatic plants vital to lake fishing grounds.

The Amy Corps is in the midst of a decades-long, multibillion-dollar effort to strengthen the lake’s dike.

The Corps in October completed the initial 21-mile stretch of a reinforcing wall being built through the middle of the dike to help stop erosion. That took five years and more than $360 million and now the corps is working on a study, expected to last until 2014, aimed at determining how to proceed with upgrading the rest of the 143-mile-long dike.

Beyond fixing the dike, environmental advocates contend that jumpstarting the reservoirs and water treatment areas envisioned for state and federal Everglades restoration efforts would help the lake and protect the estuaries.

“We have got to find a permanent solution,” Abood said. “Move the water south the way Mother Nature intended.”

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