Balancing act

No quick fix to Lake Okeechobee's water problems

Managing water in South Florida is like trying to make all sides of a Rubik's Cube match.

That's how Col. Robert Carpenter, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, describes the problem with water flow and pollution in Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, the Kissimmee River and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

People flock to South Florida because of the climate, but without the artificial controls woven into the landscape over the past 100 years, this Eden would be swamped in the summer and raging with fire in the winter. Taming the environment made modern settlement in South Florida possible, but it exacerbated the extremes for the plants and animals that had adapted to the fluctuations.

Creating a system that works for flood control and restoring the habitat of the ecosystem will take a balancing act that will feature birds and fish, dairy cows and sugar cane, conservation groups and agribusiness corporations. It also will involve more than $11 billion and a lot of patience.

"I know people in the estuaries want quick results and the people on the lake want quick results, but it's not physically possible, so we kind of have to put our shoulder to the wind," said Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida. "All we're trying to do is just turn the corner and instead of the lake getting worse every year, have it start getting better."

The system's faults

As a shallow, 730 square-mile water body surrounded by an earthen dam that can't withstand high water levels, Lake Okeechobee doesn't make a very good reservoir, but that's how it has been treated for almost 100 years.

Summers send floodwaters rushing across the grime-soaked pavement of Orlando and the manure-sodden farm fields of Okeechobee and Highlands counties, sweeping pollutants directly into the straightened Kissimmee River. The soiled water rushes into Lake Okeechobee and the lake rises within the confines of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

To avoid dike failure, the Army Corps lifts the lake's spillways to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and dirty water gushes to the east and west coast estuaries.

When Carpenter explains how government agencies are trying to change water flow in South Florida to stop harming the estuaries and the Everglades, he says the system is broken. But the system of canals, levees and pumps has not stopped working as it was intended to work.

The system's dependence on storing water in the lake during the dry season and moving water quickly in the wet season has brought about unforeseen consequences. At the same time, the needs of South Floridians have changed. The growing population requires more water for taps and crops and the population also demands healthy habitat for everything from blue crabs and manatees to apple snails and largemouth bass.

On Lake Okeechobee, a boat trail cuts across clear marshland — a lake rarity these days. Water quality is on the minds of many people who depend on the lake for their livelihood.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Daily News

On Lake Okeechobee, a boat trail cuts across clear marshland — a lake rarity these days. Water quality is on the minds of many people who depend on the lake for their livelihood.

Agencies are now looking outside the lake to replicate the water storage that drainage projects removed and to an array of treatment marshes to clean the water of sediments and fertilizers.

Susan Gray, head of the Lake Okeechobee division for South Florida Water Management District, said studies are also under way to evaluate whether to remove 300 million cubic yards of phosphorus-laden mud that has accumulated on the lake's bottom since the dike's construction.

More mud started to enter the lake after the Army Corps finished straightening the Kissimmee River, in the process destroying 27,000 acres of marshlands that had provided water filtration and water storage. To create the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the lake, about 700,000 acres of sawgrass marshes were drained.

Marshes retain water much longer than drained agricultural lands and paved surfaces and the grasses help filter polluted water. Before drainage projects nearly eliminated South Florida's water storage capacity, water flowed year-round through wetlands that ranged from the Kissimmee chain of lakes to Florida Bay.

Professional bass fisherman Mark Davis

David Pelham, refinery manager

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

Now that water shoots through canals in the rainy season and is discarded like waste into the sea.

In the past three years, an average of 2.3 million acre-feet of water, enough to raise the lake about five feet, has been discharged to the estuaries, according to Cal Neidrauer, an engineer with the water management district. In 2005, water managers discharged nearly 3 million acre-feet, 72 percent of it down the Caloosahatchee River.

Most of that water rushes to the estuaries in the summer; by winter, water managers start holding back water to prevent drought.

For the Caloosahatchee estuary to function properly in the winter, it needs releases that amount to about 6,000 gallons of water per second from the lake. When releases drop below 2,200 gallons per second, the estuary becomes too salty.

In the summer, the estuary is overloaded with fresh water. Bortone said the optimum summer flow to the river should be in the 21,000 gallon-per-second range.

In recent years, the combination of rainy weather and lack of water storage in the system has been wreaking havoc on the Army Corps' attempts to manage water levels in the lake and flows to the estuary.

The Corps has deviated from its regulation schedule two years in a row to bring the lake to 14 feet by May 1. While the Corps met the goal, it still wasn't enough to stave off harmful wet-season releases to the estuaries.

Paul Gray Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida
Health of rivers hinges on unproven technology Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed coordinator for Audubon of Florida, stands at Indian Prairie in the western part of Lake Okeechobee in ankle deep water. “This is what the lake is supposed to look like,” Gray says. When lake levels are kept high, areas like the prairie are flooded by sediment-laden water. When grasses die, habitat for wading birds and small creatures is lost.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Daily News

Paul Gray Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon of Florida Health of rivers hinges on unproven technology Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed coordinator for Audubon of Florida, stands at Indian Prairie in the western part of Lake Okeechobee in ankle deep water. “This is what the lake is supposed to look like,” Gray says. When lake levels are kept high, areas like the prairie are flooded by sediment-laden water. When grasses die, habitat for wading birds and small creatures is lost.

Last July, releases jumped to as high as 70,000 gallons per second. After Hurricane Wilma, the lake rose to 17.1 feet and the Army Corps released about 48,000 gallons per second for more than two months.

This year the agency is following the same course of action as last year and the year before. Only this year, the corps and the water management district are less optimistic that the lake will drop to 14 feet by May 1.

The plans

Standing in the blazing heat on Okeechobee Beach in October, Gov. Jeb Bush announced a $200 million plan to help Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries. Most of the projects he outlined weren't new. They were part of the $10.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP.

A year earlier, the water management district gave a similar boost to the restoration plan. The district called its plans Acceler8.

These programs, which include building water storage reservoirs along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, building and expanding stormwater treatment areas, back-filling unnecessary canals in the Everglades, strengthening pollution laws and altering the water regulation schedule, are the state's way of moving forward with - and in some cases adding onto - the plan to restore the Everglades.

The federal government and the state agreed to split the cost of the restoration plan when it was passed in 2000, but the state has had to dig much deeper into its own coffers to start the work. The state has paid $1.5 billion toward restoration so far, while the federal government has pitched in $300 million, said Ernie Barnett, director of policy and legislation for the district.

The projects aim to add 1.7 billion gallons a day of storage back into the Greater Everglades system through the construction of reservoirs and by injecting water deep into the earth. The additional storage is supposed to help water managers reduce flows to the estuaries and keep the lake no higher than 15 feet by the end of the wet season and no lower than 12 feet by the end of the dry season. A shallower lake will allow grassy fish habitat to grow back and reduce the need for emergency releases.

Part of Bush's October announcement also coincided with the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan, which calls for land management laws to reduce phosphorus run-off from farms and urban areas north of the lake.

Native plants and beneficial algae in Lake Okeechobee can use about 140 tons of phosphorus a year, but water spilling in from the northern watershed dumps about 500 tons of phosphorus into the lake a year. That means 350 tons are left over to sink to the mud or feed algae blooms and invasive plants such as cattails and torpedo grass. Making matters worse, an estimated 5,000 tons of phosphorus from fertilizer and animal waste are added to the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee every year, said Paul Gray of Aubudon.

To reduce pollution and the flow of water to the lake, the governor, the Army Corps and the district are focusing attention north of the lake.

The Kissimmee River Restoration Project, for instance, is now in progress and will return 27,000 acres of marsh and 82 miles of bends and eddies to the river that once meandered for 103 miles.

"If we don't capture that water north of the lake and treat it north of the lake, we will continue to have high water flows and dirty water flows," said Susan Gray.

Will the plans work?

Critics of restoration plans say the project, which is unprecedented in scope worldwide, still isn't big enough.

The Audubon Society suggests tripling the amount of water storage the plan calls for in the Everglades Agricultural Area, from 360,000 acre-feet to 1 million acre-feet.

Paul Gray also said more storage needs to be built north of the lake.

North of the lake, current restoration plans would add seven inches of water storage to the basin.

"During the hurricanes last summer, the lake rose 5.5 feet. So if you store seven inches of that, big deal," Gray said. "We need to store two feet of water north of Okeechobee, not just seven inches."

If farmers in the 4,000-square mile northern watershed all set aside about 3 percent of their property for small ponds or reservoirs, Audubon estimates 400,000 acre-feet of water storage could be added north of the lake.

Environmental groups also criticize restoration plans for relying on Aquifer Storage and Recovery, which involves injecting excess water deep into the earth for later use. About a third of the plan's water storage depends on such technology.

To increase sheet flow to the Everglades, which would also divert excessive water flows from the estuaries, the Sierra Club is urging the Army Corps to elevate 11 miles of the Tamiami Trail. Current plans call for a 1-mile bridge and a 2-mile bridge.

Additionally, only about half of the needed land has been purchased.

Meanwhile, land costs are rising and the need to buy more land than anticipated is growing more apparent.

The challenges and the waiting has caused some of the people who have been working on restoration for years to lose their optimism.

Herb Zebuth, a former Department of Environmental Protection scientist who worked on formulating the Everglades restoration plan, said efforts still cater too much to monied businesses, such as agriculture.

"You need to have statesmen, instead of politicians, that can't think further than their next campaign and the funds they need to win it, and how you get those people, I don't know," Zebuth said. "I blame the people of Florida that they haven't risen up in outrage that this crime against the environment has gone on for decades."

Wayne Nelson, head of Fishermen Against the Destruction of the Environment, has been working for two decades to save Lake Okeechobee.

He said there have been too many failed plans and too many inaccurate studies for him to believe restoration will work.

"I don't think we're going to save the lake. I wouldn't have said that two or three years ago, but I've been at this for 20 years now," Nelson said. "Do I have hope that we can still save the lake? Yeah, I have hope. But there's a lot of difference between hope and belief."

Data used to arrive at everything from the amount of phosphorus the lake can handle to the amount of water that can flow through the system has, at times, been questionable.

For instance, the first phosphorus standards for the lake were set too high because scientists failed to account for phosphorus already present in the lake's mud bottom.

Now water calculations are under fire because most of the years used in the modeling for the Army Corp's water regulation schedule fell during a cycle of dry weather.

Despite criticism and pessimism, there are those who plug along with patience. The restoration plan, after all, is designed to be flexible as science and technology becomes more advanced.

Dennis Duke, restoration program manager for the Army Corps, said stormwater treatment areas were probably built to handle dry cycle flows. He suggested their capacity may need to be doubled and that canals will need to be widened to allow more water to travel south to the Everglades.

If the Corps determines such measures are necessary and cost effective, they can be fitted into the plan.

With that flexibility in mind, environmental groups are constantly chiming in on ways to make restoration plans better.

"I tell people we're in a marathon and not a sprint. We've been messing this lake up for a century and it's going to take decades to turn it around," said Paul Gray.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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