Controlling water in South Florida is an expensive and complicated endeavor, but it's essential for the modern towns and farms that have sprung up in the region over the last century.
The South Florida Water Management District spends $1.2 billion a year to keep water in check.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends another $3.6 million a year to operate the locks, dams and spillways on the Okeechobee Waterway.
Boats navigate the waterway from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean via the Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River.
The intricate system of canals, levees, and locks provides water in the dry season and prevents flooding in the rainy season.
"Anybody that lives in South Florida, in the past two years the only reason they didn't get flooded was because of the canals," said Dennis Duke, Army Corps program manager for ecosystem restoration. "The system is operating as we planned and designed it to do. It's pushing the water out to tide."
When the system was designed, engineers focused on flood control and water supply without much thought about fisheries, bird habitat and clean water. At the time the Army Corps started construction on the Herbert Hoover Dike in 1932, memories of two deadly hurricanes that had sent water pouring out of the lake were fresh on residents' minds.
The Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control started in 1948, after two 1947 hurricanes topped the Hoover Dike and caused flooding all the way to Fort Lauderdale. The project expanded the dike around the lake. Over time, the project widened, deepened and straightened the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Kissimmee rivers to create swift outlets for flood waters. The channels also created the Okeechobee Waterway.
Along the waterway today, the Army Corps and the district manage 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees, and hundreds of water-control structures. The structures, built into the dike, allow farmers to access water from the lake. Spillways on canals that connect the lake to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers also allow water managers
to send water to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean when the lake level climbs too high.
When the lake reaches 18.5 feet above sea level, water starts to erode and seep through the dike.
No water exits the lake without human aid. Pumps and spillways control water flow in and out of the lake at the Miami Canal near Clewiston, the North New River Canal in South Bay, the Hillsboro Canal in Belle Glade and the West Palm Beach Canal between Pahokee and Canal Point.
Fisheating Creek is the only waterway that still flows naturally into the lake. The Kissimmee River, Nubbin Slough and Taylor Creek are all managed with locks, pumps or spillways.
The canals, locks and other infrastructure allow the water management district and the Army Corps to direct water where it's needed and flush what's unwanted away relatively quickly.
The problem is that the system does little to conserve water and nothing to replace the filtering action that occurred when the water moved through marshlands and bending rivers.
Professional bass fisherman Mark Davis
David Pelham, refinery manager
- AUDIO: Inside the sugar refinery
Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar
Alvin Ward, Glades County Commissioner
Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida
Wayne Nelson, head of Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment
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