Tallahassee — Florida is playing ecological Russian roulette with its largest lake, gambling that it can stave off a flooding catastrophe by poisoning its coastal waters, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As the condition of the dike holding Lake Okeechobee in check continues to deteriorate, so too does the quality of its nutrient-laden waters which must be diverted in ever-greater quantities into Florida’s sensitive estuaries.
Visible from outer space, Lake Okeechobee is the fourth largest lake in the U.S. (after three of the Great Lakes). It represents a 730-square mile Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of South Florida. The lake is held in check by Hoover Dike, built after a 1928 Lake Okeechobee flood drowned an estimated 3,000 people. The 20-foot high dike is developing boils and for safety reasons the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to keep lake levels low.
Yet Lake Okeechobee has entered a wet period, with higher net inflows than have been seen in more than 90 years. The severity of this year’s hurricane season (when lake levels peak) will determine whether the increasingly fragile dike will hold for another year.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the waters of Lake Okeechobee are becoming more polluted. After absorbing more than 50 years worth of agricultural runoff, the lake bottom harbors a watery trove of horrendous pollution. But worsening water quality is also reflected in its surface waters, where phosphorus levels are now reaching record levels.
It is the surface waters that are diverted into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries from Lake Okeechobee. These diversions are also on the rise, with troubling consequences. The large outflows of polluted Lake Okeechobee waters are being linked to –
- Algae blooms. In the past few months, South Florida has been plagued with bigger and more toxic algae blooms. The lack of circulation on Florida’s Gulf Coast means that the diversion of Lake Okeechobee water to the west will create more persistent conditions;
- Shellfish contamination. Southwest Florida’s oyster industry is now suffering badly; and
- Fish and manatee kills. The toxic surges from Lake Okeechobee disorient manatees and make them more susceptible to boat collisions.
“Lake Okeechobee is a ticking environmental time bomb that is being ‘managed’ not for defusing but for stalling so that it does not go off during the current governor’s term,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. “Florida does not really have a water policy — we have a development policy masquerading as a plan for ‘restoring’ the waters that we poisoned to fuel previous development.”