All around me as I look south, the flat land of the Everglades reaches to the horizon, interrupted only occasionally by small stands of palm trees. None of the distinctive native sawgrass grows here. In fact, the vista is not at all what visitors to Everglades National Park see. Instead, the black, peat-like soil is planted in sugar cane as far as I can see.
Behind me, as I turn around, is an expanse of placid blue water that reflects the sky. It is all water to the northern horizon. This is Lake Okeechobee.
I am standing on the flat top of the mound of sand and gravel, not concrete, that is the fragile Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile long structure that holds in the mammoth lake. Once-upon-a time, it was considered the brilliant solution to Florida’s sometimes deadly flooding problems. Today, it’s lack of an outlet to the south deprives the remaining area of natural Everglades of the water it needs, while its fragility requires the repeated dumping of billions of gallons of polluted water, with disastrous results, into the delicate Indian River and Caloosahatchie estuaries to the east and west.
On this bright early Spring day, I’m out on an all-day tour of some of the Army Corps of Engineer’s latest work on the Dike, at the moment in the town of Moore Haven. With me are clean water activist Becky Bruner; Marty Baum, the Indian River Keeper; and my husband, Harry, a Sierra Club Long Island executive committee member and photographer for the day. Our guide is John Campbell who has come from the Corps office in Jacksonville.
As they are in New Orleans and so many other places, the Corps is responsible for managing the risks of flooding and dam safety. Here, the Corps has calculated the risk as one-in-two that a very heavy rain, from a hurricane or otherwise, will cause the dike to burst, if the water level rises to 18’. This calamity would inundate the small, low-income communities built just below the dike and spread water through much of South Florida.
Our tour showed contractors under Corps supervision working on replacing the first of 32 nearly 100-year old culverts that the engineers consider especially vulnerable points of failure. The new concrete structures are expected to last 100 years. In 2012, after six years of toil, the Corps finished building 21 miles of a wall to prevent water from seeping through the dike. But the $10 million/mile project stopped 122 miles short of stabilizing the whole dike.
So here’s the problem: hundreds of millions of tax dollars of work later, the risk of dike failure is still high, and nothing the Corps is doing lessens at all the certainty that dirty water will once again be dumped into the estuaries when rain raises the water level high enough.
What the culvert work does guarantee, however, is that the sugar cane fields can continue to be drained when it rains hard—sending water back into the lake, which is already filling up very rapidly from the very same rain. And that is the very condition that leads to the dumping of Lake water east and west.
Should sugar can fields be allowed to flood and sustain damage? Should they be allowed to pump water back in when lake water is ruining some of the most important natural areas in the state of Florida, and in fact, the whole continent? Who is setting the priorities, and how are they doing that?
There is much more to this story, and I will pick it up again soon.