Lake Okeechobee dangerously high, dike threatened after recent rains

The liquid center of the Sunshine State is dangerously swollen, reaching a 12-year high that threatens the fragile Herbert Hoover Dike as well as the grassy habitats that give life to Lake Okeechobee.

At 17.16 feet above sea level on Monday, the lake has risen more than 3 feet in a month with rainfall from Hurricane Irma and a tropical wave that washed through last week quickly filling the enormous bowl of freshwater.

The Army Corps of Engineers began daily inspections of the vulnerable south side of the dike over the weekend, finding leaks of clear water in areas prone to seepage. The fact that the water is clear is a good sign, meaning the dike isn’t being eroded, said Corps spokesman John Campbell.

10 THINGS TO KNOW: About the Herbert Hoover Dike and why politicians keep fighting over it

“We’ll do daily inspections on the south side until it gets below 17 feet,” Campbell said. “That’s where we have more concerns. It’s the older section, and the water wants to go that way naturally.”

The Corps likes to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. The highest the lake has been was 18.7 feet in 1947.

But while the dike, which protects Glades-area communities from flooding, was holding its own Monday, plants that provide a habitat for bass and black crappie were being decimated.

Audubon Florida scientist and Lake Okeechobee expert Paul Gray called it a “disaster.” Peppergrass, eelgrass and hydrilla are choked by mud stirred up by Irma and can’t get enough sunlight in the deepening water.

LIVE RADAR MAP: Check The Palm Beach Post radar map

“When we lose those, we will lose the bass fishery as well,” Gray said about the grasses. “They will probably die off and won’t grow back until we have a significant drought. It’s a potentially long-term loss.”

The rapid increase in water levels in Lake Okeechobee is a perennial concern for the Corps, which tries to balance the potential need for water during the dry season with concerns over tropical systems dumping dike-damaging rains during hurricane season.

In 2008, Tropical Storm Fay slogged through Florida, leaving as much as 20 inches of rain in central regions of the state and pushing Lake Okeechobee levels up 4 feet in a single month.

Tropical Storm Isaac in 2012 caused the lake to rise nearly 4 feet in six weeks.

“It wasn’t just Irma,” said Campbell about why Lake Okeechobee has risen so quickly since the hurricane hit Sept. 10. “We had the unnamed system last week, but named or unnamed it certainly was a precipitation event.”

LIVE WEATHER NOW: Download the Palm Beach Post WeatherPlus app here

According to the South Florida Water Management District, September rainfall in the Kissimmee basin that flows into Lake Okeechobee was double what’s normal for the month, with more than 12 inches falling.

Ten days into October, rain totals in the same areas north of Lake Okeechobee remain above normal.

Campbell said because rain amounts have also been high to the east and west of the lake — the two main arteries for dumping water — the Corps has had limited options on where to put the water.

“This all goes back to water management and we have to build reservoirs to hold more water and slow the water down north of the lake,” Gray said. “It makes me sick to my stomach that the lake has been good the last five years and now we’ve had this terrible change of fortunes.”

The Corps built the Herbert Hoover Dike after hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 took more than 3,200 lives. Although built to the highest engineering standards at that time, the dike was molded from gravel, rock, limestone and sand, which allow water to seep through and cause erosion.

Gov. Rick Scott toured the dike on Monday. He has urged the Trump administration to accelerate dike repairs so they are completed in 2022 rather than the scheduled 2025. That would require Congress to appropriate $200 million a year from 2019 to 2022 — far more than Trump has proposed or Congress has ever approved in the past.

Scott also worked with the Florida legislature to invest $50 million to speed up repairs.

“I’m concerned the water is this high,” Scott said Monday. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get the dike restored.”

If you haven’t yet, join Kim on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter .

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Weather

Thank Halley’s Comet for meteor shower that peaks this week
Thank Halley’s Comet for meteor shower that peaks this week

The legendary celestial hunter Orion lends his name to a modest but noteworthy meteor shower that peaks this week in predawn darkness. While the Orionid shower runs from about Oct. 2 to Nov. 7 this year, the heavenly show will be most robust on Saturday morning, when the greatest number of meteors will slip into Earth&rsquo...
Potential tropical system in the Atlantic fizzles
Potential tropical system in the Atlantic fizzles

A chunky mass of showers and thunderstorms that was on the radar of the National Hurricane Center this week, fizzled overnight. Although center forecasters were giving it a 40 percent chance of development Monday morning, it fell apart in strong upper-level winds. But the would-be Philippe is still expected to merge with a cold front in...
King tides return with new moon this week
King tides return with new moon this week

The waning crescent moon is pulling on the Earth’s great oceans tides, a tug that may bring minor coastal flooding when it becomes newly born Oct. 19. The National Weather Service said higher tides – called king tides – are expected into the weekend, an annual event tied to seasonal tumult and lunar influence...
Cold front to bring rain, not heat relief, to Palm Beach County
Cold front to bring rain, not heat relief, to Palm Beach County

Although a cold front moves through northern Florida today, there will be no relief from the heat in Palm Beach County — just rain. Forecasters are calling for high temperatures to reach 85 degrees with partly sunny skies, according to the National Weather Service. The chance for showers is 40 percent, mostly in the afternoon, with a calm east...
First cold front of season, but will it make it to South Florida?
First cold front of season, but will it make it to South Florida?

The first cold front of the season breached Florida’s northern border Monday, promising to drop temperatures by double digits in areas of the Panhandle through Jacksonville. But the earthy breath of autumn is only a tease for South Florida, which will get showers and clouds from the feeble front, but no significant heat relief. “Close,...
More Stories