February 14, 2017
Lake Okeechobee dike safer, but work remains
By Laura Ruane
As Northern California fights to keep a massive wall of water from breaching Oroville Dam, a business leader in Clewiston hopes the California crisis brings into greater focus a years-long effort to shore up the eroding dike protecting communities near Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
“My biggest concern is the integrity of the (Herbert Hoover) Dike,” said Hillary Hyslope, executive director of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce.
Hyslope said she's been following news coverage of the evacuations and other emergency response measures in Oroville closely.
Portions of the 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike are 80 years old and eroding.
It's not so much of a problem during this dry winter. The concern intensifies during the summer rainy season. Studies indicate water seepage over the years, even absent a hurricane, is eroding the dike.
So when lake water levels rise, so do the risks.
If the dike should fail, at immediate risk are more than 40,000 residents and their homes and businesses nearest the lake, with “far-reaching effects for the whole of southern Florida,” according to a risk analysis by insurance giant Lloyd’s of London.
The Lloyd's report further noted the three counties immediately southeast of Lake Okeechobee “have a combined population in excess of 5 million residents.
Recovery could take years, with economic losses likely to run to the tens of billions of dollars.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for Herbert Hoover dike operations and rehabilitation.
Repairs got started in the early 2000s. To date, about $870 million has been spent on actions including installing a partial cutoff wall, removing and replacing culverts, and conducting studies and technical reviews to help ensure South Floridians’ safety.
Army Corps spokesman John Campbell estimated it will take another $800 million and work into the mid 2020s to complete the dike’s rehab.
The dike is “safer than it was 10 years ago,” Campbell said.
Spillways are designed to safely release floodwaters so they don’t pour over the top of a dam or destroy it.
Oroville Dam’s main spillway is damaged, as is an emergency spillway.
Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee has no spillway, said Campbell, adding, “there is no mechanism in place to rapidly adjust the levels of the lake.”
The Army Corps briefly considered spillways for the dike rehab, but dismissed them because "the acquisition of land associated with that would be too expensive — in the billions of dollars," according to Campbell, who added that estimate didn't include construction and related costs.
The most risk of dike failure occurs when the lake level reaches 18 feet or higher. So the corps doesn’t allow that to happen.
When the lake level reaches to about 15 feet or higher, “we release water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers,” Campbell said.
The rub is that big freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee are problems for those two rivers and their estuaries, which serve as nurseries for sea life.
Last January was unseasonably rainy. That prompted more frequent and voluminous lake releases that sent brown and black plumes into San Carlos Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Tourism and fishing industries cried foul.
As outrage over the releases heightened on Florida’s east and west coasts, state Sen. Joe Negron proposed a $2.4 billion federal/state project to buy about 60,000 acres south of Lake O and build a 120 billion-gallon reservoir to curb harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
That legislation cleared the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee last Tuesday.
Changes to the bill are likely before it reaches the full Senate Legislature.
Federal tax dollars are paying for the Herbert Hoover Dike improvements. It's different for water storage efforts near the lake, for which both federal and state funds are used.
However, chamber exec Hyslope sees the state measure to buy land for water storage as a distraction from her main Lake Okeechobee concern.
“We need to use resources to make sure that dike system is shored-up ... as quickly as possible."