Trump pledges to speed up Lake Okeechobee dike repairs

4:43 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Homepage
Almur Whiting (center) with Carl Williams (left) both with the Army Corps of Engineers walk the Herbert Hoover Dike at John Stretch Park this month. President Donald Trump has called for accelerating repairs to the dike. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

President Donald Trump wants to speed up repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, a top priority of one of his key political allies, Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is roughly halfway through a $1.9 billion renovation of the earthen berm that’s scheduled for completion in 2025, but Scott has pressed for the project to be completed by 2022. A Thursday night announcement from the White House supporting accelerated repairs does not specify a completion date or attach a specific dollar figure to the pledge, but says the administration will work closely with Scott to expedite work.

“This project is important to the state of Florida and we are honored to play a role in the funding, and now acceleration, of this essential infrastructure initiative,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called dike repairs “a priority” during a visit to Palm Beach County this month.

Asked for specifics Friday, a White House official told The Palm Beach Post: “We will be looking at all possibilities for completing these repairs more quickly and cost-effectively.”

The 142-mile dike around the lake was completed in the 1930s after flooding from hurricanes in the 1920s killed nearly 3,000 people in the Glades.

The corps has determined the dike is “at high risk of failure and in need of repairs to address significant dam safety and stability issues,” the White House said.

Completing it by 2022 would require Congress to approve about $200 million a year from 2019 to 2022 — a significantly faster rate of spending than in the past.

Since 2005, the corps has spent about $940 million on dike repairs and needs about $930 million more to complete them. Over the last decade, annual appropriations for the project have ranged from $39.8 million to $153 million. A budget Trump submitted in the spring for fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1, calls for $81 million in spending on dike repairs.

Construction has included a 70-foot-deep wall along the most exposed 21-mile stretch of the levee near Belle Glade and repairs to 24 weak points where culverts allowed water to flow in and out. Still under construction are 35 miles of seepage barrier along the west and south sides of the lake and repairs to eight more culverts.

Florida lawmakers put $50 million in state money toward the federal project in this year’s budget after Scott initially asked for $200 million to help “jump start” the repairs. The White House commended the state for approving the money.

“The Administration is pleased to see Florida allocate additional state funding to the project in order to bring this major infrastructure priority to completion more quickly and cost-effectively,” the White House said.

Scott applauded Trump’s decision in a comment that was included with the White House statement Thursday night.

“The federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike is in desperate need of repair,” Scott said. “Since I have taken office, it has been one of my top priorities to protect Florida families and our environment by getting this critical project completed. After meeting with President Trump in April, he committed to me to provide the necessary funding to speed the repairs to the dike. Today, I want to thank President Trump for prioritizing these repairs and protecting Florida’s environment for our future generations.”

Scott has been a vocal ally of Trump and Trump has publicly urged the term-limited Republican governor to run for Senate in 2018 against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.