Lake Okeechobee and the Estuaries

The Past

Herbert Hoover Dike (2008)/US Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District

It was an old idea, dating back to the 1880s – drain the swampy Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee and develop agriculture. The hurricane of 1928 was an even better reason. More than 2,000 people died when the lake sloshed over its meager southern dikes into the surrounding farming communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay. To protect the farmers and open the area to agriculture, the earthen Herbert Hoover Dike was erected around the lake. Completed in 1933, the 35-foot-tall berm transformed Lake Okeechobee into a 730-square-mile water-filled bowl. Two rivers – the Caloosahatchee to the west and the St. Lucie to the east – whose headwaters did not reach the lake, were re-engineered and dredged to provide a pathway to the lake from both directions; the “Okeechobee Waterway” was the third largest man-made waterway in the world when completed in 1925, but its consequences to the Everglades were profound. Instead of the Lake feeding the Everglades with billions of gallons of fresh water every year, the water was shunted to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, doing massive damage. “Water that was intended for the Everglades and to sustain the water supply for millions of people was being wasted,” says Dr. Stephen Davis III, a wetland ecologist with the Everglades Foundation.

The Present

Meanwhile, the meandering and serpentine Kissimmee River that brought seasonal water flow into the lake was straightened and connected to canals draining agricultural land. Runoff from the agricultural land carried pollutants and nutrients downstream. “The effect was to speed up the water flowing into the lake,” says Dr. Thomas Van Lent, a hydrologist with the Everglades Foundation.  The lake’s water level is controlled to provide water for agriculture and drinking, but also for flood control.

Water flowing into the lake from the north led to nutrient and other pollutant contamination of the lake and the estuaries. “The Everglades is now half the size of what the ecosystem used to be and the system’s water quality has suffered,” says Dr. Davis. The ecosystem that supported the natural cycles of wet and dry no longer has the capacity for adequate water storage. “The habitat that allowed plant and animal life to adapt to the seasonal water cycles that included overflows south of the lake is short-circuited,” says Davis, “fish and wading birds are affected throughout the system.”


The Projects

Comprehensive Everglades restoration efforts are contingent on providing three things that have been compromised by man’s development of Florida: water storage, water quality and water distribution. The recent biennial report to Congress on progress in Everglades Restoration by the National Academy of Sciences pointed out the need to focus on getting benefits in the central part of the Everglades. This turns out to be a major benefit for Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Instead of dumping excess Lake Okeechobee water to those estuaries, the plan should be to clean it and move it to the Everglades. That is what the Central Everglades Project, which is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), intends to do.

There are other projects that directly support the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.  The C-43 and C-44 projects are reservoirs and water treatment marshes that will help improve conditions in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, respectively.

Both of these projects require Congressional action to move forward. Congress first needs to pass a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to authorize these projects, and then has to appropriate funding for construction. The people of Martin County have put up the money to purchase the land for the C-44 project, and the state of Florida has already started some construction, but we will need the cost-share promised by Congress to make these projects a reality.

Martin County commissioners during the groundbreaking for Indian River Lagoon-South C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Areas (Oct. 28, 2011) Jessica Hodder//Everglades Foundation

The Future

The key to the future of the Everglades and South Florida is the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Water supply for the Everglades and for the urban areas will require water storage facilities, and water  that flows through the Everglades will require artificial marshes that clean the water.  The best and only place to put these facilities is in the EAA.

“Acquiring land and building water storage and treatment projects on it solves two of the three major problems impacting the Everglades–the water quality and the water supply issues,” says Dr. Thomas Van Lent, senior scientist, Everglades Foundation.

The purchase of additional lands in the EAA is essential for restoration of the Everglades and for the water supply to South Florida’s urban areas.  Plans to improve the Kissimmee River and restore wetlands and water storage in the river basin are under way. This reduces the amount of water draining too rapidly into the lake, resulting in the wasteful discharge of this precious resource into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.