Our beloved Lake Okeechobee is sick: This is how it got that way

Paul Gray steeled himself as he took the stick of the airboat and fired up its blades.

“It’s going to be kind of sad because the lake has really been pounded,” he said, before aiming the boat’s stubby bow into the sediment-choked soul of Florida.

Nearly nine months ago, Hurricane Irma raked over Lake Okeechobee, churning up its nutrient-laden guts with 80-mph gusts and turning portions into a molasses-colored broth.

In the wellspring of Everglades life, wading birds still forage, alligators hunt, and scores of bass are caught by happy anglers. Ringed by cumulus clouds that boil up over sun-warmed land, fauna abounds under blue skies in Lake Okeechobee.

RELATED: One tropical system can push Lake Okeechobee over the edge

But it’s what Gray, a lake expert for Audubon Florida, didn’t see in a survey last week that has him concerned.

Where beds of water lilies once floated above fields of emerald eel grass, there is only murky water, too deep and dark for plants to thrive.

“Everyone is asking what happened to the lake, but what happened is still unfolding,” Gray said about queries made after Hurricane Irma. “Plants are the base of the food chain.”

When he pulled up the airboat’s anchor on a recent excursion, strings of dead eel grass hung limp like cooked linguine.

“It’s about as bad as I thought it would be,” Gray said.

Hurricane Irma wasn’t the only culprit in Lake Okeechobee’s most recent struggle.

Just three years ago, the lake was as healthy as it had been since a double-barreled pummeling from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.

Regrowth of submerged vegetation spanned 44,700 acres in 2012, creating a domino effect that led to a robust ecosystem resurrection — plants clean the water and provide a place for bugs to live, which are then eaten by the fish, which are food for bigger fish and birds.

But at the end of 2015 and early 2016, an El Nino climate pattern so strong it was nicknamed “Godzilla” turned Florida’s dry season into months of rain. By February 2016, Lake Okeechobee was a swollen 16 feet, 4 inches above sea level, which is above a comfort level set by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps started dumping lake water into the fragile St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

RELATED: Lake Okeechobee not lone cause of algae outbreak

The preferred lake height is between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level for ecological health, but that range also ensures the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. The dike protects Glades-area communities from flooding, and keeps a ready water-supply in case of drought.

During the dry season of 2017, a months-long drought lowered lake levels, allowing the vegetation to wage a comeback.

“All that progress was wiped out by Irma,” said Zach Welch, lead scientist for Lake Okeechobee at the South Florida Water Management District. “We were hoping to get lake levels down again this year, but the rains came early instead of late and that makes a big difference.”

In the month following Hurricane Irma’s Sept. 10 landfall, the lake rose an astounding three and a half feet, reaching 17.2 feet above sea level by mid-October.

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At that point, the lake had been above 16 feet six times since 2013, and the repeated high water levels had taken their toll.

By the fall of 2016, just 19,500 acres of vegetation remained of the 44,700 in 2012 — a 56 percent reduction.

High water levels reduce the amount of light reaching submerged vegetation, such as eel grass. As the submerged vegetation dies back, it no longer buffers the inner marsh from polluted water from the middle of the lake. Once that nutrient-laden water reaches the interior of the marshes, thickets of cattails overrun the remaining plants and don’t support the same amount or variety of life that other vegetation did.

Higher water also disperses fish, making it more difficult for wading birds to find food and almost impossible for short-legged wading birds to forage.

“In the long term, it’s not good,” Welch said about the blow to plant life. “Bass need vegetation to ambush prey, they need it to spawn.”

The lowest Lake Okeechobee got this year was 12.83 feet on May 12, said John Campbell, spokesman for the Corps.

According to Welch, it was below 13 feet for just 10 days before the rainy season fired up May 12.

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Thursday, the lake stood at 13.67 feet – more than 2.5 feet above where it was at this time in 2017.

“There is a lot of concern about the amount of water that may fall this weekend,” Campbell said Thursday. “It’s already caused the lake to rise and as long as it continues to rise, it increases the likelihood that we will have to discharge.”

In 2016, discharging lake water contributed to massive algae blooms in the St. Lucie River during the summer months.

Before man replumbed Florida to create dry land for homes and farms, Lake Okeechobee water would have flowed naturally south with a typical fluctuation in annual heights averaging about two to three feet, or as much as five feet during extreme drought conditions.

“Last year the fluctuation was six feet,” said Gray, noting that there have also been years with changes of nine feet. “Plants have trouble keeping up with that.”

On the lake recently, a barefoot Gray steered his airboat past dried mats of cattails six feet wide hugging the shore – decaying rubbish from Irma.

But around a corner, a field of vibrant lily pads with white flowers as big as apples came into sight. Clear water revealed tiny schools of mosquitofish and a sleek marsh bird called a purple gallinule strutted deftly on long yellow toes from pad to pad looking for a meal. The scene, a sign of hope.

“The lake was really whacked, but it’s not dead,” Gray said.

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