Editor's Note: This is part two of Liquid Heart: Lake Okeechobee, a three-part series
Nature controls how much water falls on South Florida every summer, but for 100 years people have dictated where that water goes once it reaches Lake Okeechobee.
Before American settlers knew about Lake Okeechobee, its shallow waters covered almost 1,000 square miles and fed a wet prairie that stretched to the tip of the Florida peninsula. Okeechobee's water crept toward the equator at a constant pace, but occasional hurricanes sped up the flow, pushing water and piles of settled muck over the lake's southern ledge. Swept from the lake, the muck washed to lower elevations, giving rise to the sluggish sawgrass rivers, pockets of custard apple forests and scattered islands of slash pine, cabbage palm and saw palmetto that was the Everglades.
More than a century of altering that natural landscape has culminated in what some call an environmental catastrophe. The upper half of the Everglades is ditched and drained for farming and the lake itself is surrounded by a massive earthen dike. Nature no longer has a hand in how water flows in and out of the lake; that's now the job of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.
Decades of manipulation have left the lake full of muck, pollutants, invasive plants and exotic fish. But despite all that has changed, at least one thing has not: what happens with Lake Okeechobee affects all of South Florida.
Lake Okeechobee before American settlement
At about 6,000 years old, Lake Okeechobee is a geologic baby. After millennia of sea levels rising and falling, the Florida peninsula emerged in the Holocene epoch as a flat body of sand and limestone with a few saline lakes resting in sea-level depressions. The largest of those depressions eventually became known as Lake Okeechobee. In time, stormwaters trickling down from the chain of lakes replaced salt water with fresh water.
From the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, south across the flat landscape, water coursed in a massive but shallow sheet. Underwater plants such as peppergrass, eel grass and shrimpgrass flourished in deeper waters, while sawgrass, kissimmee grass, and an occasional cattail took root in the shallows.
Impeded by fields of submerged and emergent grasses, water flowed slowly into and out of Lake Okeechobee. Leaves and debris shed by the grasses passed over the lake and sunk to its bottom. Lacking oxygen to fully decompose, the plant matter turned to brown muck and added just enough nutrients to the system for new grasses to take root.
Occasional floods and tropical cyclones ripped up the grasses and pushed the muck from the lake. The water carried the debris down the peninsula, forming a limited nutrient base for the Everglades and raising the swamp's elevation. The plant matter also accumulated at the lake's southern ridge, which caused the lake to hold more water and expand wider and deeper.
At its deepest, the lake reached 21 feet above sea level, but it covered a larger territory than it does today and its littoral zone — the marshy area where water meets land — was constantly in flux and virtually limitless. The lake water was also clear.
Now that water speeds down a channelized Kissimmee River and the lake is contained by a dike, the 730 square-mile water body is no longer clear and its shape is fixed. Instead of spilling out past the littoral zone, the lake rises higher in the rainy season and drowns its marshes.
"The lake's in the worst shape it has ever been in history and it doesn't seem like help is going to come very soon," said Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida. "If you look at Lake Okeechobee historically, it was a low-nutrient lake and it was a sand-bottom lake."
The first substantial dike, built on the lake's southern edge in 1937, put an end to the lake's natural cleansing mechanism. Since then, decades of dead vegetation have piled more than two feet deep on the lake's bottom. Instead of flushing the lake, hurricanes now make its waters murky.
"Think about the last two years," Gray said. "You would have had the lake flushed from Frances, Jeanne, Wilma, Charley. It would have been flushed out four times by water being stirred and blown out and it can't do that anymore because the Hoover Dike is all around it."
Early settlement around the lake
Lake Okeechobee is young in geologic time, but its history goes back well before Herbert Hoover and well before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to the New World.
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
Before Ponce de Leon failed to conquer the Calusa Indians near Charlotte Harbor in 1521, approximately 20,000 natives lived in South Florida. They were the Tequesta, Mayaimi and Calusa. Lake Okeechobee, then called Lake Mayaimi and Lake Mayacca, provided the tribes with a bountiful food source for hundreds of years.
Meanwhile, American colonists fought with the motherland and pushed northern tribes of natives into less desirable territories. Eventually, some of those tribes found their way to South Florida and they joined with slaves who had escaped from plantations and homesteads of the deep south. This band of displaced people formed the fearsome Seminole tribe. Upon reaching the big lake sometime in the 1700s, the Seminoles named it Okeechobee, which means big water.
The Seminoles learned how to cope with Florida's hostile landscape and succeeded in fighting off European settlers until the mid-1800s.
After centuries of failed battles against the natives, Spanish, French and American explorers began talking about a gigantic lake on the South Florida peninsula. Most explorers and map-makers shrugged off the talk as myth until Colonel Zachary Taylor came into the picture.
While gold lust lured adventurous Americans to California, Taylor led 800 troops through sawgrass swamps, seeking to stamp out the Seminoles.
Chasing the tribe through the swamps, Zachary's troops stumbled through the marshy shores of the lake to the open water body. The infamous 1837 Battle of Lake Okeechobee did not succeed in conquering the tribe, but it put the big lake firmly on the map.
Two years later, the Federal Armed Occupation Act encouraged Americans to settle Florida. By 1845 the sodden territory became a state, though few wished to explore the lake or the Everglades swamps it fed. The lake and the swamp were universally viewed as mosquito- and disease-infested impediments to progress.
An enterprising Pennsylvanian named Hamilton Disston took on the challenge of draining the Everglades in 1881, when he bought 4 million acres of land from Florida at 25 cents an acre.
The following year, Disston dredged 11 miles of canals south of the lake, widened and deepened the Kissimmee River for navigation and dug another canal that connected Lake Okeechobee to Lake Hicpochee, the original headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River.
Before his financial enterprise collapsed and before he mysteriously died in his Pennsylvania bathtub, Disston managed to drain 50,000 acres of South Florida swampland.
Florida's 19th Governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, vowed to pick up where Disston left off. He campaigned on the platform that he would turn the useless marshlands south of Lake Okeechobee into fertile ground. Creating the Everglades Drainage District in 1905, Broward instigated the dredging of the St. Lucie, Hillsboro, North New River, West Palm Beach and Miami canals.
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Drainage set the stage for settlement around Lake Okeechobee. Land barons enticed people to come to Florida, promising rich soil and limitless opportunity for wealth. Those promises fell flat and later led to jokes about land being sold in Florida by the gallon.
Nevertheless, people settled around the lake and in the swamp, creating the need for more drainage and more flood control to save lives and property.
According to Florida history-buff Jeff Barwick, Clewiston's first settlers were a group of Asian immigrants. Having first settled on the West Coast, they had heard about Florida's incredible soil. In 1915, they bought land on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, sight unseen. The farmers stuck it out for three years before they moved back west. They couldn't control the water in the summer, said Barwick, former president of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce.
At about the same time, Moore Haven was just getting established about 20 miles northeast. Eventually, people found ways to work the land near emerging towns like Clewiston, Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee. The conditions were harsh, but over the course of 25 years people managed to make a living around the lake, fishing for catfish, raising cattle and growing citrus, row crops and sugarcane.
Today, people understand that Florida is a land of extremes and that average weather is more rare than droughts and floods. Florida was in a dry cycle when Americans first began building towns in the Everglades and around the lake.
People didn't realize how disastrous a wet cycle could be until the mid-1920s.
Early hurricanes led to today's lake policies
After a 1926 hurricane killed about 400 people in Moore Haven, arguments over drainage and water management erupted. The accusations voiced by residents then sound eerily similar to the debates of today.
According to the 1973 edition of "Lake Okeechobee, Wellspring of the Everglades" by Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna, the attorney general at the time told people that every lock on Lake Okeechobee could have been open for 30 days before the hurricane hit and it would not have saved Moore Haven from damage. Instead, he told the public, opening the flood gates would have destroyed Moore Haven and also flooded the Everglades lands south of the lake.
Arguments over the lake level ensued, with the attorney general saying that keeping the lake at a low 15 feet in the rainy season would lead to severe drought and muck fires in the Everglades farmlands in the dry season. For four years the disputes continued and little was done to shore up the lake. Then another hurricane struck with much more force in 1928.
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This time the storm wiped out Belle Glade, killing 2,000 to 3,000 people, drowning livestock and ripping homes from their foundations.
Out of the disaster the Okeechobee Flood Control District was formed.
Under the guise of navigation, Congress funded the construction of an intracoastal waterway from the mouth of the St. Lucie River on the Atlantic coast and the Caloosahatchee River on the gulf coast. The district also built an 84 foot long levee along the lake's southern edge and called it the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Another Battle of Lake Okeechobee had begun.
The lake's connection to the rivers lowered its water level and the dike added the security needed for the towns and farms south of the lake to flourish.
When two major hurricanes blew through the region again in 1947, the dike held up with little damage. But after the storms had passed, water continued to filter through the Kissimmee watershed. Rising waters toppled over the dike, swamping the settled Everglades and Fort Lauderdale for weeks.
The drainage district produced a report documenting the flood damage.
The famous cover of the report illustrated a crying cow up to its shoulders in water. In the background, the roofs of houses barely poked from the floodwaters.
A year later, the federal government stepped in with the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and Other Purposes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was instructed to channelize the Kissimmee River, widen and deepen the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and extend the earthen dam all the way around the lake. While the Army Corps finished straightening the Kissimmee River in 1971, the project was mostly complete by 1966.
The dike now spans 140 miles around the lake's perimeter and rises to an average height of 34 feet above sea level.
Flood control solutions degrade water
Dirty water was not a concern on the minds of Florida's first American settlers, but hurricanes and flooding were. Engineering feats in the 1910s and 1920s altered the Okeechobee landscape and made the area somewhat habitable, but nothing changed the ecosystem as dramatically as the Hoover Dike.
As recent hurricanes have proven, the system of dikes, locks, straightened rivers and canals work for flood control and drainage.
But, like a tourniquet, the dike cuts off water flow to the Everglades and spoils the lake's ability to cleanse itself. Decades of settled muck and pollutants, washed or pumped into the lake from cities and farms, plague the lake and the estuaries with algae blooms, low oxygen and turbid water.
"In 1926, the lake was flushed out with a storm," said Alvin Ward, a Glades County commissioner and second-generation Lake Okeechobee fisherman. "There's been nothing done, basically since 1926, to take any pollutants from Lake Okeechobee ... and then the straightening of the Kissimmee River flushed all that (urban and agricultural runoff) down here and it settled in Lake Okeechobee. And now through the years of that it's caught up with us to where we're now flushing it to the estuaries on the coastline."