Troubled Waters: Understanding Lake O

Lake Okeechobee has garnered a great deal of attention lately in the news, in social media, and even through on-site protests along its shores.

Much of the current tumult intensified when more than a foot of rain fell on the area in January of 2016. That torrential rain drove Lake O dangerously past the 16-foot level, creating a no-win situation for the lake’s managers: either release some of the water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, or else run the risk of Lake O overflowing the Herbert Hoover Dike and flooding towns south of the lake.

There was no viable choice at the moment but to release millions of gallons of water to surge eastward and westward through the rivers.

Sadly, this is a step that has had to be taken on more than one occasion. While the sheer volume of water released from the lake causes problems for properties downstream, the bigger issue remains the condition of that water. To put it mildly, the water in Lake O is not always clean.

Heavy rainfall carries runoff from cities and towns in central Florida directly into the lake — runoff that is often laden with pesticides, phosphate fertilizers, and other pollutants. Today, the headlines remind us that while it’s vital to manage the flow of water in and out of Lake O, dealing with the quality of that water is just as vital.

It’s Not Always Good to Go Green

A quick glance at parts of Lake Okeechobee is all it takes to know that the water is not currently in the best of health. The bright green slime shimmering on the surface of many areas is actually blue-green algae, a type of cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria are produced when fresh water is warm, stagnant, and injected with nutrients. When cyanobacteria cells die, they release toxins, collectively referred to as microcystins. These microcystins can pose a major threat to drinking and irrigation water supplies—and also to the health of humans and aquatic life.

Moreover, thick algae blooms can block sunlight, and consume much of the oxygen in water, further disrupting the lake’s ecosystem.

No Simple Answer

Obviously, there are several dimensions to the problems of Lake Okeechobee…and as a result, there will have to be several dimensions to the remedies.

Part of the difficulty stems from the complexity of the topography around the lake, with certain sections of land exhibiting a stair-step contour. Some of the natural sheetflow that progresses down those steps must to be allowed to continue south to replenish the Everglades—which in turn replenishes the Biscayne Aquifer, the crucial underground water supply for Miami and south Florida.

Another complication is the fact that the many contributors to the lake’s plight are far reaching. A great deal of attention has to be focused on areas north of the lake, because the vast majority of sheetflows come from that direction, and there’s a significant amount of pollution traveling downward from Orlando’s suburbs by way of the Kissimmee River.

Solutions in Sight

In 2015 the University of Florida published an exhaustive Independent Technical Review seeking to reduce high-volume flows into rivers, and move greater volumes of water from Lake O into the Everglades.

Very appropriately, this exhaustive study urged the exploration of multiple courses of action:

  1. Complete infrastructure projects already underway designed to provide relief to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee basins.  These projects include the construction of reservoirs and Stormwater Treatment Areas, as well as development of more aggressive Basin Management Action Plans.
  2. Provide storage & treatment for areas north of Lake O — thereby intercepting some of the volume and pollutants encroaching from central Florida.
  3. Provide additional water storage, treatment and conveyance south of Lake Okeechobee. This effort is embodied in SB-10 legislation, which includes the proposed construction of a deep-water reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake O.
  4. Conduct deep-well disposal of excess water — a measure which, if deemed necessary, would involve the construction of a system of injection wells to receive emergency overflows from the lake, rather than diverting those flows into rivers/estuaries.
  5. Evaluate operational changes relative to manipulation of Lake O water levels.

Ever since the state’s natural, southbound sheetflow was disrupted nearly a century ago, the salinity of Florida Bay has risen to very unhealthy levels due to reduced influx of fresh water. The Lake O remedies listed above can also be a benefit to Florida Bay and other southern waters.

Stakeholders at the Table

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the DEP, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Water Management District, Everglades National Park, and the neighboring Seminole tribe, and I’m satisfied that among these various stakeholders, every feasible solution for the discharges is either being studied or is already underway.

I believe that the rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike (currently projected for completion in 2022), along with the work related to Sen. Joe Negron’s SB-10 projects, will be pivotal components of the Lake O solution.

Once all the necessary improvements have been made in their proper sequence, Lake O and adjoining rivers will be healthier, the surrounding towns will be safer, and Everglades will once again experience the full inflow of restorative waters.