Florida Gov. urges federal funding for Okeechobee dike.
Coastal Florida will continue seeing algae blooms until a restoration of the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee and other Everglades projects are finished.
That was one message from Gov. Rick Scott, who flew into Clewiston on Monday morning to talk about the response to Hurricane Irma and the future of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
"We’ve got to put this lake in the position that we don’t have to do these discharges," Scott said. "If the (Army Corps) has to do these discharges, we’re going to see these algae blooms."
Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the historic Everglades, and the management of the lake by the Army Corps (with input from the South Florida Water Management District) is often blamed for various coastal water quality issues.
"We see the algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon and we see the dirty water coming out of the Caloosahatchee River, so we’ve got to fund this," Scott said of an Army Corps rehabilitation project that's ongoing.
Scott said the federal government is about $900 million behind on fixing the dike and funding for Everglades restoration projects.
The lake is expected to rise to nearly 17.5 feet over the next two weeks, Corps officials estimated. Army Corps protocols say the surface Lake Okeechobee should be kept between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level to provide flood protection for people living south of the lake while also supplying water to farms and communities.
The water quality problems started about a century ago, when the lake was artificially connected to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as a way to drain the Everglades for development and farming.
Now the Fort Myers and St. Lucie areas are used as a flood plain for Lake Okeechobee, a place to release water during emergency situations.
Hurricane Irma dumped close to a foot of rain last month, and the lake has been rising since.
Lake Okeechobee releases have harmed the Caloosahatchee River estuary, which has been blown several miles into the Gulf of Mexico, for several weeks now. The releases aren't expected to stop anytime soon.
The dike is considered by insurance companies to be one of the largest man-made potential disasters in the United States.
Col. Jason Kirk, the Corps top officer in Florida, said the Corps is watching the dike and lake closely.
"The Army does offense and defense type operations, but right now we’re playing defense but we’re doing it in a very active manner," Kirk told a crowd gathered along the Herbert Hoover Dike. "I have teams that are doing daily inspections along the southern end of the dike ... so far this week we see no signs of distress and should we see distress the army team has a plan to do any necessary control of those distress areas. We do not expect in the next couple of weeks, with the rainfall that we expected, to see any signs of distress."
That's good news to people like Janet Taylor, a former Hendry County commissioner, and about 40,000 others living in rural farming towns south of the lake.
"I think the whole community is worried," Taylor said. "When your daily concern is whether there’s going to be a breach or not. When you wake up in the morning, everybody is screaming on the TV about lake levels and releases, you can’t help but think about it."
With the lake at 17.16 feet above sea level and a flooding threat, the lake is also getting hit from an ecological perspective.
"For grasses to grow they need sunlight, and the deeper that water is the less grass you're going to have growing (in the lake)," said Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Roland & Mary Ann Martins Marina in Clewiston. "We need to fix the lake so that we all survive, so that we don’t get drowned out by a storm. But ecologically, you can’t put too much water in it or you’ll kill it."
Right now there aren't a lot of options for water managers, Taylor said.
"It’s a stalemate," Taylor said. "There’s a lot of water everywhere, and we don’t want to flood our people out to the east coast or the west coast. But if they stop the discharges that puts us in danger."
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