Its name, Okeechobee, means “big water” in the language of the Seminole Indians, but these days it has turned into a big problem.
The largest lake in the southeastern United States covers 730 square miles, according to the South Florida Water Management District, and is a key player in supplying water and controlling flooding. But fierce rains that began in the spring have forced the flooding of the lake into delicately balanced estuaries east and west of the huge body of water, The New York Times reported on Sunday September 8. This in turn has perhaps irrevocably harmed the fragile ecosystem of the estuary region.
Lake Okeechobee is heavily polluted, and rainstorms in the spring forced the Army Corps of Engineers to make a difficult choice: whether to do nothing, which risked a breach of the 143-mile dike that keeps the lake from flooding farmland and communities to the south, or channel the water to the east and west, ruining the estuary.
The choice, as the Times reported, was to release the water into the estuaries out of fear that the dike would burst and flood southward. The release of polluted fresh water wreaked environmental havoc on the saline estuaries.
“As a result, the St. Lucie River estuary in the east and the Caloosahatchee River estuary in the west, which depend on a naturally calibrated balance of salt and fresh water, were overwhelmed,” The New York Times reports. “The rush of fresh water from the lake and the estuaries’ own river basins, along with the pollutants carried in from farms, ranches, septic tanks and golf courses, has crippled the estuaries and, on the east coast of the state, the Indian River Lagoon.”
The pollutants enabled algae growth, and between that and the fresh water, “oysters died in droves,” The New York Times reported. “Manatees, shellfish and the sea grasses and reefs that help sustain the estuaries all were badly hit.”
Florida’s oyster industry is already teetering elsewhere in the state because of water disputes around Apalachicola Bay, as the Times reported back in June.
Lake Okeechobee’s woes have reverberated around the state, and with hurricane season still peaking, there is potential for major damage.
“The lake is slowly beginning to recede a bit,” said Ernie Barnett, the interim executive director for the South Florida Water Management District. “But the concern is still there. All it will take is one tropical storm to put us in a massive crisis mode.”
Read In South Florida, a Polluted Bubble Ready to Burst in The New York Times.