Featured Image: An algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee viewed from space. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The takeaway message:

Debate continues about how Lake Okeechobee’s water level should be managed as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes public input on a new operating plan.

What’s going on?

A debate over Lake Okeechobee’s water level is making waves in the Sunshine State.

Historically, the lake and its surrounding wetlands would fill with water during the rainy season. This water would flow south and naturally provide needed moisture to the Everglades in the dry season. But, as development took hold in Florida, the wetlands were drained for various uses. To manage the new flow of water, the Herbert Hoover Dike was built, as well as an extensive series of levees, canals, flood control structures and pump stations — a system meant to protect regional water supplies and control flooding for 8.1 million people.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the lake’s water level, is currently working on the new Lake Okeechobee Operating Manual. This document will define how the lake is managed in the future, including its ideal water levels. The new manual would take into account a $1.8 billion update to the aging Herbert Hoover Dike as well as various Everglades restoration projects.

But the Corps must balance competing interests as it takes public comment for developing the new manual. While certain environmental groups and coastal communities favor low lake levels, farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area and others who rely on the lake for water supply support keeping them higher.

Those groups who support keeping the water levels low say that runoff from agricultural lands can pollute the lake with nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus. When lake levels get too high, that water is then released east and west via canals into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries. These freshwater releases can be detrimental to the health of the coastal estuaries and the oysters and seagrasses that need some salt and clear waters to exist. The nutrients can also feed algae blooms, as was seen in 2016 and 2018.

The Corps is currently working on several projects to help reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee into coastal estuaries. The C-43 and C-44 reservoirs, and the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project will create additional water storage where water would be filtered before being discharged south into the Everglades.

Why it matters.

Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in the Southeast United States, plays many important roles for Florida’s population, wildlife and environment. Water from the lake provides irrigation for agriculture and water for South Florida residents. The dike that helps maintain the water level protects more than 8 million people in nearby communities from floods. But managing this water is not always easy.

After last year’s exceptionally dry season, agricultural lobbyists, along with Rep. Alcee Hastings, want to guarantee that enough water will be available for crops. This includes Florida’s commercial sugarcane production, most of which is clustered around Lake Okeechobee.

But as a projected heavy wet season looms, environmental advocates, coastal communities, and Rep. Brian Mast have called for keeping the water level low to handle increased flow into the lake and prevent discharges into the estuaries.

These competing interests and the struggle over too much and too little water are not new, and efforts to fix the problem have long been in the works. In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized the multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a long-term project to “to increase freshwater storage, improve water quality, and re-establish the natural water flow through the greater Everglades ecosystem,” according to the National Park Service. Progress reports on ongoing CERP projects can be found at: CERP Reports to Congress

What can I do?

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