Lake Okeechobee Dike At Risk As Water Levels Rise, Drainage Harms Coastal Waterways

08/08/2013 05:01 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013
  • ANDY REID Sun Sentinel
AP

Lake Okeechobee's rising water level is expected to hit 16 feet Thursday, continuing to climb despite the deluge of lake water getting dumped out to sea for South Florida flood control.

Increased water levels boost the strain on Lake Okeechobee's more than 70-year-old dike, which is considered one of the country's most at-risk of a breach.

To lessen the strain on the dike, the Army Corps of Engineers since May has been dumping billions of gallons of lake water west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucie River.

While those lake discharges help avoid flooding in South Florida, they are having damaging environmental consequences on coastal waterways -- fouling fishing grounds and in some areas making water unsafe for human contact.

The lake draining could continue through the end of the year, according to the Army Corps.

A rainier-than-usual summer has nearly twice as much water flowing into Lake Okeechobee as the amount of water being drained out, according to the Army Corps.

"There has been a tremendous amount of rainfall," Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, the Army Corps' deputy commander for South Florida said at a Lake Okeechobee briefing Wednesday. "We have still not reached the peak of hurricane season. ... We are taking that very seriously."

The lake early Wednesday was 15.99 feet above sea level, nearly 4 feet above this time last year. The Army Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet.

So far no signs of damage or significantly increased seepage through the earthen dike have been found, Greco said.

When the lake goes above 17 feet, the corps considers the dike at a "significantly higher" risk of a breach.

The polluting effects of the lake discharges are prompting outrage in coastal communities where the water quality problems threaten to scare away tourists and scar marine habitat.

Proposed Everglades restoration projects that call for building more water storage and treatment areas could one day provide an alternative to the damaging dumping of lake water out to sea. But that relief remains backlogged by high costs and other political hurdles.

"There are no short-term fixes to turn the water off," Greco said.

abreid@tribune.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter @abreidnews ___

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