Note: This is the first in a series of posts about environmental problems in South Florida related to polluted Lake Okeechobee and its dangerously frail dike. I am a newcomer to both the problems and the area, having become the owner of a condominium in Jensen Beach this year. My hope is that fresh reporting on this old problem may help inspire concerted, corrective action.
The Army Corps of Engineers committed what should be regarded as an environmental crime this summer and fall, flooding two of Florida’s most biologically rich estuaries with billions of gallons of toxic, polluted water. Dolphins, endangered manatees, fish, oysters, grasses and other marine plants suffered the consequences, and fishing and swimming in the affected areas was forbidden because of high levels of dangerous bacteria .
Take a look at these pictures to get an idea of what happened to the Indian River Lagoon, one of the two estuaries. Filthy water—3 billion gallons a day at the peak in mid-August--contaminated with runoff from farm fields and septic tanks, was diverted east and west from huge Lake Okeechobee. The filth spread like a black, underwater monster through the delicate lagoon.
It happened because heavy rains this past summer raised the water level so high that the aged earthen dike holding in the lake was in danger of failure. In late October, the Corps was still releasing a massive amount to the lagoon: 765.2 million gallons a day.
The Indian River Lagoon is the most biologically diverse estuary in the Continental United States. (An estuary is a body of water open to the sea where fresh water from creeks and rivers mix with salty water that rushes in on the tide.) More than 4,000 species of plants and animals and one-third of the world’s last manatees live in the lagoon. They are delicately adjusted to the constantly changing ratio of fresh to salt water. The beauty of the lagoon is a major reason my husband and I chose recently to buy a condominium near it.
The effect of the deluge of polluted fresh water from the lake was dramatic. It dropped the salinity of the lagoon to zero and created a massive bloom of algae as a result of all the phosphorus and nitrogen in the water. These pollutants come from both farms and leaky home septic systems. Oysters and sea grass beds died, and fishing stopped.
You’d think a discharge of pollution like this would be illegal. Indeed, in the rest of the country, tiny spills can bring criminal prosecution and big fines. But not in this case. It is illegal to dump polluted water into the Everglades, where flow from the lake should go. But there is no law, federal or state, against these discharges into the estuaries. In fact, they are considered necessary to protect people from a catastrophic breach of the dike.
If this were the first time this has happened, you might expect that immediate action is planned to correct the situation. Instead, releases of polluted water happen roughly every ten years when heavy rains hit the state and fill Lake Okeechobee to dangerous levels. “Lake dump,” as the Miami Heraldcalls it, rushed into the lagoon in 2004 and 2005, after hurricanes pounded Florida, and before that, in 1998.
“A Gun Pointed at South Florida”
Built of earth in the 1930s, the Okeechobee dike is a poster child for neglected infrastructure in the United States. It is the most fragile “dam” in the country and is in “grave and imminent danger” of collapse. After New Orleans, Lake Okeechobee is the most vulnerable area in the United States to damage from a Hurricane. (See the size and location of the lake here.Lloyds, the British insurer, reports that the chance of failure of the dike is one in six in any given year without continual intervention by the Army Corps to shore it up.
Most vulnerable are the 40,000 people who live in the immediate vicinity of the lake and could be swept away if the dike bursts, along with thousands of homes. But a burst dike could also contaminate the water supply of the 5 million people who live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, and part of this area could be submerged. A burst could also “irretrievably damage” the Everglades, according to expert reports.
Although it is named for President Herbert Hoover, the dike was not built to the standards of Nevada’s Hoover Dam, for example. It was built to control floods after a category 5 hurricane hit the lake in 1928, killed 2,500 and caused immense property damage. But as south Florida developed, the 730 square mile lake (half the size of the state of Rhode Island) became the place to put all the water that was in the way of housing developers and the sugar industry. For example, channels into the lake were built to take in water from the Kissimmee River, which naturally flows to the north and away from the lake. Now, Kissimmee water flows south into the lake at six times the rate than it can be pumped out.
So this earthen dike is now being used as a dam to hold a reservoir for sugar farms and as a tank for floodwaters. It is a giant cesspool.
And everyone knows it leaks. A 2006 report prepared for the South Florida Water District describes portions of it as bearing “ a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.” Failure now would be “a catastrophe for the whole of South Florida,” says the report. One of the experts who studied the situation calls the dike “a gun pointed at South Florida.”
This year, the Army Corps completed a $220 million overhaul of the most vulnerable stretch of the dike, but at the current pace of repair work, bringing the dike up to dam standards will take another decade or more.
That means that it is just about inevitable that polluted water will again flood the lagoon.
Time to Redirect Government Spending
The dike offers a perfect example of how our country has been putting off fixing our infrastructure while spending trillions on our military and the arms industry, and billions every year to subsidize Big Oil and Big Agriculture. The interconnected water problems in South Florida have been studied over and over again for the past 30 years but little gets done. Politicians whine about spending the money, and the status quo suits developers and the sugar industry just fine, thank you.
Meanwhile, the Everglades remains shortchanged of the water that used to flow south naturally from the lake, and the two estuaries periodically become sewers for the lake’s dirty water every time it rains heavily. (To the west, it is the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary that gets the lake dump.)
Fixing these problems will require a concerted, comprehensive and cooperative effort by the state and federal governments, and by all the concerned environmental and other organizations that have been working on different pieces of the problem.
It will cost billions of dollars. And at the moment, it looks like federal and state taxpayers will have to bear that cost, and not other players like the sugar plantations that have been polluting the Everglades for decades.
Stay tuned. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Big Sugar and how easily it maintains its grip on Florida’s politicians and legislators. ##