Lake Okeechobee Construction

Lake Okeechobee Construction

Boaters win some, lose some with Florida’s State Budget

FLORIDA GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT HAS ISSUED a modern-day record number of vetoes impacting nearly a dozen West Coast Florida projects.

There is some good news, however, as a special session deal with lawmakers allocated a surprising $50 million for improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee. Recreational boating and tourism on both coasts will benefit in the long run, easing water discharges that led to massive algae blooms affecting water quality, damage to estuaries and fish kills.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) estimates that shoring up the entire 143-mile dike, with an environmentally friendly solution involving the construction of a seepage berm with relief trench and drainage system, will take decades and nearly a billion dollars, perhaps funded by the federal government. Construction would be in eight phases, starting with a 21-mile-long southeast shore section where the potential for dike failure is the greatest. Phase One of the Lake Okeechobee Construction would take about four years to complete.

Transiting boaters are often delayed in the spring as the Corps discharges water from the lake to keep the elevation between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. There is limited potential for dike failure with lake elevations lower than 18.5 feet. Analytical studies show a dike failure would be likely at one or more locations if the water level in Lake Okeechobee reached an elevation of 21 feet. By opening locks on either side of the lake, water levels drop only about 0.4 inches per day under ideal conditions. That is no match for Mother Nature, especially during a hurricane, as the amount of water entering Lake Okeechobee is much greater than the total discharged, which leads to environmental challenges to the St. Lucie River, Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee Estuaries.

The containment dike was first constructed in the 1910s, and after the “Great Miami” hurricane of 1926 and the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane killing thousands.  Herbert Hoover and the USACE engaged in a massive flood control project for construction of floodway channels, control gates, and major levees. The dike was expanded again in the 1960s and is now about 30 feet high on average, but it leaks. For those who live downstream and have businesses affected by discharges, deeper lake water may mean fewer harmful discharges, but it could also harm flora and fauna in the lake. So there is no easy answer, but the $50 million is a start for Lake Okeechobee construction.

By Alan Wendt, Southern Boating August 2017

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