Lake Okeechobee: How to Solve a 100-Year-Old Problem
June 3, 2016
By: Katie Egan
Sometimes when something has been broken for so long—say over 100 years—you might wonder why nothing has been done to fix it.
But when it comes to Lake Okeechobee, experts say the solution isn’t that easy.
“A lot of the water issues we have,” said Mark Generales, water resources advisory commission member to the board of the South Florida Water Management District, “Are of our own making.”
And the El Nino weather pattern this past January didn’t help.
It was the rainiest year on record for South Florida since 1932, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
And with the water from Lake Okeechobee already reaching its capacity, the district is seeking out alternative areas and places to store it.
Lake Okeechobee, which compensates for most of the New Jersey and Maryland-sized expanse of land the district oversees, is 450,000 acres, making it Florida’s largest lake.
Last week, about 75 guests and Leadership Collier alumni gathered at the Professional Development Center in downtown Naples for lunch and a one-hour talk on Lake Okeechobee and the South Florida Water Management District.
The Leadership Collier Foundation works in coordination with the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce to educate local business leaders about the societal and economic challenges that face the community.
Generales and Phil Flood, the lower west coast service center director for the district, talked about the lake’s history and discussed plans for its future.
The problem right now, Generales said, is the lake can’t hold much more water, and the canals around it are nearly filled to capacity, leaving the water from Lake Okeechobee nowhere to go.
“Lake O fills six times faster than it can be emptied,” Generales said.
“Quite frankly,” he added. “The water hasn’t gone away. We still get it. We’re just all here now. And the farms are here. Everything else is here. We still have that same water.”
But, “you can’t move water where water already is.”
Nearby canals and waterways in the south are nearly full.
“So when it rains in Miami and the canals are full, we can’t shove water south from the lake,” Generales said. “If we do, we flood Miami.”
The Everglades are not an option for storing water either because flooding the area with water would drive out native and endangered wildlife.
However, according to Flood from the South Florida Water Management District, there is a solution for now.
During the rainy season the district is storing water on public and private lands.
And it’s one of their biggest priorities.
“We have over a dozen contracts in place with ranchers throughout the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee River Basin,” he said.
During the wet season, farmers and ranchers modify their water control structures and let the water accumulate on their pastureland, Flood explained, rather than letting the water drain into the lake or surrounding rivers.
“The idea is to keep that water out of the rivers,” he said. “To keep those nutrients out of the water and watershed.”
One of the most successful partnerships the district has is a contract with Lykes Brothers, where pumps siphon water out of Lake O and it’s stored on 34,000 acres of the ranch’s pasture land.
The district pays them $2 million a year and the contract is good for the next seven years, Flood said.
“They pump the water up and stack it on dry land,” Flood said. “The ground itself provides storage.”
The water then stacks up about two-to-three-feet high and percolates into the ground.
“Recharging the aquifers,” Flood said.