A Draining Problem: How The Release Of Lake Okeechobee Floodwaters Is Dirtying Florida\’s Coastline

An unusually wet winter has triggered emergency draining, from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, that flushes away billions of gallons of water each day to protect South Florida from flooding.

But the resulting rush of water hurts other parts of the state: polluting coastal fishing grounds, scaring away beachgoers and threatening to wipe out deer, wading birds and other Everglades animals.

Much of the water comes from draining swollen Lake Okeechobee, where authorities fear rising waters could burst through the towering mound of rock, gravel and shell encircling the lake to guard against flooding.

Farther south, flooding in portions of the Everglades stretching through western Broward and Miami-Dade counties threatens to overwhelm the high ground animals need to survive.


Lake Okeechobee Overload


Rising Lake Okeechobee waters from El Niño-driven rains this year have triggered massive discharges of lake water to the east and west coasts — intended to lower the lake in time for an influx of water expected from summer storms.

The problem is that Lake Okeechobee fills up six times faster than it can be drained by canals. And rising waters raise fears of a New Orleans-like failure of the outdated, 30-foot-tall barrier of limestone, sand and shell rimming the lake, relied on to protect South Florida from flooding. And the problem is man-made. While lake water long ago naturally overlapped its shores and flowed south, South Florida’s drainage system has allowed homes, schools, businesses and a sea of sugar cane to move into what used to be the Everglades.


Dike-Failure Fears

South Florida flooding fears spiked in February when the lake level topped 16 feet above sea level, exceeding the 12.5- to 15.5-foot range targeted to avoid overwhelming the more than 70-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike.

Lake Okeechobee\’s Water Levels


Back-Pumping Concerns


1 – Sometimes when rains south of the lake threaten to flood crops and lakeside towns, water gets pumped north into the lake. That “back-pumping” can carry with it fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants that can lead to fish kills, toxic algae blooms and threaten drinking water supplies.


2 – Back-pumping is a rarely used flood-control alternative that was triggered for a short time this year to protect “lives and property” near the lake, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Usually, lake water is drawn south by canals and helps irrigate sugar cane, vegetables, rice and other crops in the nearly 500,000-acre called the Everglades Agricultural Area. But when flooding threats rise in that large farming region, the lake’s typical southern discharges are stopped in favor of draining water east and west.


3- The lake’s rise at times this year has triggered maximum-level draining to the east and west to lessen the strain on the dike, which the federal government has labeled one of the country’s most at risk of failing. Holding back water with mounds of earth and rock was common practice back in the 1930s. But the lake’s barrier has proven susceptible to erosion, which today risks sending flood water gushing across South Florida. A slow-moving dike rehab that started in 2007, and includes adding a reinforcing wall, could take another decade to finish. Until then, draining remains the primary way to avoid flooding. Despite the harm to coasts from lake discharges, “we have to place more emphasis on our public safety concerns,” Army Corps spokesman John Campbell said.


River Woes Grow



Sending big gushes of pollution-laden Lake Okeechobee water east into the St. Lucie River and west into the Caloosahatchee River is already hurting sea grass and oyster beds and scaring away game fish along the coast.

The Coca Cola-colored lake water, darkened by the stirred-up sediment it carries, threatens to smother reefs and is blamed for boosting bacteria levels that raise health concerns for swimming and fishing. Toxic algae blooms could follow, worsening water-quality problems, if the lake draining continues as temperatures rise. Concerns are mounting that the damaging influx of lake water could linger into the spring spawning season.

Dark plumes of lake water flowing out of inlets and toward beaches near Fort Myers and Stuart leave tourists questioning whether it’s safe to book trips. That has fishing guides, hotel operators and other tourism-dependent businesses along the coasts demanding flood-control alternatives to the damaging lake draining.

“We are starting to lose oysters. We are going to see (more) brown water,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society. “That is basically going to kill the spawning season. … It is just really disheartening.”

Declaring An Emergency


Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 26 declared a state of emergency for Stuart, Fort Myers and other coastal communities near the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, where waterways are suffering from Lake Okeechobee draining.

The governor also called for nearly $2 billion in federal funding to jump-start Lake Okeechobee dike repairs and for Everglades restoration projects to move more water south — both considered ways to lessen the damaging draining of lake water out to sea.

Every few years, the environmental problems caused by Lake Okeechobee discharges to the east and west threaten the tourism-based economies of the coastal communities.

Fishing boat captains, bait shop owners, hotel operators and even real estate agents say business drops dramatically because customers stay away when lake discharges foul waterways.

“It’s really, really tough on the estuaries,” said Charles Grande, of the Stuart-based Rivers Coalition advocacy group. “They just can’t take people to fish here now. … There’s no real answer to this until they are able to send large quantities of lake water south.”


Threats To Everglades Animals

South Florida’s rainier-than-usual winter, which triggered the ongoing lake draining and the temporary back pumping, has also prompted emergency pumping within the Everglades to save animals at risk of flooding.

The pumping moves more water out of Everglades sawgrass marshes in western Broward and Miami-Dade and into Everglades National Park to try to head off flooding that state officials warned could become a potential wildlife disaster.

Those marshes are part of 850,000 acres of the Everglades, extending into Palm Beach County, that are cordoned off by canals and levees to hold water that helps guard against flooding, supplement community drinking water supplies and also provide wildlife habitat. But drainage to protect South Florida from flooding can also boost water levels too high in those marshes (called Everglades water conservation areas), threatening to wipe out deer, wading birds and other animals if high water lasts too long.

To alleviate that risk, emergency pumping in western Broward and Miami-Dade is expected to last until May.


Lake’s Southern Outlets Limited


This year, high water levels from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades have cut off the lake from its usual drainage outlets to the south, which is another factor forcing more lake water to the east and west.

The Hillsboro, North New River and Miami canals are three of the main flood-control arteries stretching through South Florida, collecting water from Lake Okeechobee all the way to the coast in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But when water levels rise across South Florida, the lake’s southern discharge gates to those canals are closed to prioritize moving potential flood waters away from farmland and cities that feed into the canals.

Most lake draining to the south was on hold from November through early March. Now some lake water is being moved south to a new reservoir in southwestern Palm Beach County.


Experimenting With National Park


The emergency pumping of more water out of Everglades preserves in western Broward and Miami-Dade and into Everglades National Park could offer valuable lessons for long-term efforts to save Florida’s famed River of Grass.

Environmentalists and state scientists alike are hopeful that boosting water flows into Everglades National Park will revive wildlife habitat that has suffered from draining South Florida to make way for farming and development. But there are also concerns that the pumping, expected to last into May, could bring more water pollution that threatens dwindling Everglades habitat.

The results of this round of pumping could help planning for Everglades restoration projects that involve building reservoirs and treatment areas to eventually get more Lake Okeechobee water moving south, instead of dumping it out to sea.


Source: SunSentinel

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