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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”