Lake Okeechobee Discharges – Brief Summary
It all began with the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928. The Army Corps of Engineers was charged with finding a way to prevent that type of deadly disaster from occurring again. They turned the bank of the lake from a 3 foot burn to a 35 foot earthen burn dike. The dike system and “fix” required two canals to be cut. One going east to the South Fork of the St. Lucie River and one going west to the Caloosahatchee River, these passages to sea would be the way the ACOE regulates lake water levels to this day. They are required to keep at least 12 feet and no more than 15 feet of water in the lake to prevent problems with the dike.
In normal rain seasons this has been a point source of pollution that the coasts can deal with. It is the heavy rain seasons that causes the severe problems that resurface every 5-7 years. The ACOE uses the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule or LORS to determine when discharges must occur in order to maintain the safety of the dike. One man acting under the authority of a military bureaucracy makes his decision on the basis of a manual that has been questioned by several different groups and interests. The result of the 2013 season was a deluge that averaged 1.3 billion gallons a day on the East coast and 2.7 billion gallons a day on the west coast from Mid May to mid October. That total amount wasted to tide is more than the entire SFWMD consumes in a day. To illustrate that further, Florida Ag interests recently released statement that indicated they needed 18 billion gallons a day more for the entire state. Again we are flushing 1/3 of that to tide just through the rivers. There is up to 15 bgd that is collected and flushed to tide if you include the Ag runoffs and remaining canal systems. This is a perplexing and gross waste of resource.
The excess water flowing into Lake Okeechobee is originating in Central Florida and is a combination of urban and rural runoff that has been culverted and channelized through non porous concrete that does not allow for natural seepage or evaporation. Subsequently one inch of rain fall in Central Florida equate to 3-6″ of water accumulation in Lake O. The other colossal ACOE blunder in this state was straightening the Kissimmee River which used hold all that water and slow its migration into Lake O allowing for natural filtration and evaporation to not overload the system. We are restoring 1/3 of the Kissimmee to its original state and it will take lots of time and money, but in 20 years will be a huge part of the overall solution.
Twenty years seems to be the touted magic number to long term solutions. Even short term solutions will take 3-5 years and be mere fragmented band aids that will be costly public works projects and require more public land acquisition. There has to be a way to prevent the ACOE from poisoning several communities by circumventing The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act through the Water Transfer Rule. Neither river can recover from another season like the one it just endured. The economic costs mushroom, the environmental costs are hard to measure, and for the first time we have seen severe human health costs due to toxic (cyanobacteria) algae blooms. There has to be equal application of reasonable law that allows for the protection of Florida’s Sovereign Citizens. There is believed to be enough storage north of the lake to prevent the need for discharge if the political will/solution can found to make it so.