Lake Okeechobee is sick. In human terms, it could be considered deathly ill. A desperate effort is underway to save it, an effort some say is a decade late in starting.
Lake Okeechobee dominates south Florida’s eco-system. It is like a heart that pumps the life-blood of fresh water to one of the nation’s most heavily populated and ecologically diverse regions.
It feeds the increasing demand of municipal water supplies of nearly 8-million people, on both the densely packed Atlantic coast from West Palm Beach to Miami, and the rapidly developing Gulf coast from Fort Myers to Naples. It provides the water to irrigate vast stretches of truck farms and cattle ranches. It is the primary source of fresh water to the endangered Everglades.
In the past 20 years, Okeechobee has become a vast reservoir, 30 miles wide and 33 miles long, holding back more and more water to meet the increasing demands.
A natural water level of around 12-13 feet slowly became 15 feet, then 16, and nearly 19 feet during wet seasons. Years of this shut off sunlight to the lake bottom, sunlight essential to the photosynthesis process and the growth of vegetation.
“We’ve lost 50,000 acres of (lake bottom) vegetation. We’ve lost 90% of the bulrush and grasses”, says Don Fox of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
“It had to get to a crisis situation before there was a reaction”.
Fox and others have been warning of problems on the lake since 1988.
Loss of fish and wildlife habitat, a decline in water quality, erosion from wave action…all have taken their toll.
Last year the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) began studying vegetation around the lake. The study quickly confirmed the worst…no growth was found at any of 42 sites.
Suddenly the impending crisis first warned of a dozen years ago was very real.
In April the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and SFWMD ordered lake levels dropped below 13-feet. A massive drain-off of an estimated one-trillion gallons of water flowed through the southern locks during May in a desperate attempt to get water levels down, and sunlight levels up, before the summer rains and hurricane season.
“We need 4-8 weeks of low water levels to allow the water to clear and enough sunlight to penetrate” (for grass seedbeds to regenerate), according to Louis Hornung, the Okeechobee project manager for South Florida Water Management District.
For the first two months of low water levels there was no response from the lake. Monitoring at 40 sites found no new vegetation. There were some who began to doubt if the seed beds still existed on the lake floor. There was concern the beds were buried in water too deep, too long.
Don Fox says there is a 50-50 chance the grasses will regenerate themselves. He is particularly worried about the north and northwest areas of the lake, where seedbeds have to fight the prevailing winds that pound the shallows with waves.
By August, some positive signs began to emerge from the water. Nearly half the sites recorded some new growth of pepper grass and other vegetation.
The southwest area of the lake near Clewiston may be the bright spot. Fishing guide Terry Garrels says he has found new pepper grass growth in shallow back-water areas protected from wave action.
“The water is much cleaner than it was. Back in March and April you couldn’t see down 3 inches.” according to Garrels.
He was so alarmed back then that he sent an e-mail to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who he has guided several times on fishing trips on the lake.
“He wrote back and said he was aware of the situation, and they were looking into what they could do about it”.
Not long after that the draw down of the lake was ordered.
In addition to lowering the water level, efforts are underway to tear out non-native vegetation in the lake and along the shoreline. Hundreds of cypress trees are being planted.
“This isn’t just about fish. It’s about wading bird habitat, it’s about an entire eco-system,” says Don Fox.
Fox says it will be critical to keep the water levels below 15 feet if there is hope of restoring the grass beds and keeping the lake healthy.
He is critical of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) for the way it has managed the lake since 1978.
“They’ve just kept stacking water up in it for irrigation, and managing it as a water supply, not a lake”.
The District’s Okeechobee manager, Al Steinman, accepts part of the criticism, but says the lake management problem is much more complex.
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the flow of water into and out of the lake. Within Corps guidelines, SFWMD is allowed to fluctuate lake levels to manage water supplies throughout the South Florida region.
“We have two feet of discretion on the water level. It used to be 16-and-a-half to 14-and-a-half feet. The new level is 15-and-a-half to 13-and-a-half.”
He is equally concerned about nutrient loading from agriculture runoff, and invasive vegetation like torpedo grass crowding out the bulrush and native pepper grass.
“We have to treat the lake like a natural resource, not a reservoir.”
Like everyone else, Steinman is anxiously awaiting the first signs that the grass beds are coming back.
The SFWMD has built a special web site to report on the progress of the project. It is located at http://www.sfwmd.gov/newsr/lorecess/lo_index.html.
42 sites around the lake are being monitored for vegetation growth. Two reported light vegetation in April. The number jumped to 6 in May, 18 in August
Updates are posted on the web site on a regular basis. (http://www.sfwmd.gov/newsr/lorecess/lo_veg.html)