Lake Okeechobee: In the Eye of Another Storm

Posted on March 22, 2019 by Michelle Diffenderfer

Lake Okeechobee is the center of a storm again, politically speaking!

Lake Okeechobee is the largest natural freshwater lake in Florida, 730 square miles in size, with an average depth of only 9 feet, extending to five different counties. To give you some perspective on the size, Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in the southeastern United States and the second largest lake contained entirely within the contiguous United States.  Lake Okeechobee can hold close to a trillion gallons of water.

Everyone loves and needs Lake Okeechobee for something, and over the past 130 years it has become a very heavily managed and manipulated heart of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF).  The diking and canal connections to the Lake were started initially in response to two devastating hurricanes in the 1920’s that killed thousands of people around the Lake.  As a result, a series of well meaning “improvements” began to Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades in order to protect human life and to provide for the development of South Florida for agricultural and residential uses. Today the C&SF project is managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).  They are charged with accomplishing a variety of congressionally authorized purposes which include public health and safety, flood control, navigation, water supply, enhancement of fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Lake Okeechobee as it exists today receives flows from the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes by way of the Kissimmee River.  It discharges to the east through the St Lucie Canal to the St Lucie River and Estuary, into the Atlantic Ocean; to the west through the Caloosahatchee Canal to the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary into the Gulf of Mexico; and to the south through a series of canals to the Everglades Agricultural Area, the Lower East Coast canal system, three Water Conservation Areas and finally down to the remnant Everglades system.

Today, water levels and releases from the Lake are managed pursuant to a regulation schedule which is periodically updated by the USACE pursuant to a number of federal laws including the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  The USACE has just started scoping on what will be a three-year NEPA process to update the water regulation schedule for Lake Okeechobee.  The update of the schedule is typically a controversial affair because the process must take into account the often-competing interests of two Native American Tribes, agriculture, water utilities, developers, fishermen, boaters, and environmental groups.

This time around the work is starting up after a year of citizen protests, outrage, and national headlines about the summertime releases of water containing “blue-green algae” (cyanobacteria)  from the Lake to the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie Rivers out to the estuaries.  Blue-green algae grows in freshwater systems and typically feeds on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.  The blue-green algae can release nerve and liver toxins which – when carried with the freshwater discharges to the estuaries – presents greater opportunity for negative impacts to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife, including sickness and even death.  If that was not enough fun for Florida this past year we have also been suffering through outbursts of “red tide” or algal blooms along the coast which has caused additional negative impacts to wildlife, humans, and their pets. A very active and vocal group of citizens who live along and enjoy the rivers and nearby beaches that were affected are now showing up at the USACE scoping meetings.  They are pushing for the Lake schedule to be modified so that the Lake is held at significantly lower levels year round in the hope that this will lead to less discharges into the estuaries. This has also caught the attention of our brand new Governor and the local Congressmen who represents the St Lucie River residents who are weighing in and asking the USACE to hold the Lake lower than it has ever been held before. 

We are in the midst of a perfect storm, with no happy endings in sight, but lots of busy lawyers!