Lake Okeechobee in Florida Puts Pressure on Local Residents

To prevent a spillover and possible flooding, Florida takes extreme measures

A subject of environmental concern for the last several years, Lake Okeechobee returns to the environmental spotlight yet again. The polluted Florida lake—the largest freshwater lake in the state—was on the brink of overflowing earlier this year. And with a weakened dike, Florida residents who live near the lake thought it may ruin their communities.

According to the New York Times, the rise in water level began in May due to heavy rain and put serious stress on the lake and its dike, which is 80 years old. The rain also damaged three of the lake’s prominent estuaries.

Bordering on spilling over, The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had to decide between releasing billions of gallons of the polluted lake water into nearby estuaries and breaching the 143-mile dike. They chose the first option, as breaching the dike could harm the nearby residents and agriculture. The USACE has been releasing the contaminated water since May.

Though the solution has temporarily relieved the lake, the USACE has still reported weakened spots in the dike, which could eventually lead to serious erosion, according to The Huffington Post.

Both the New York Times and the Huffington Post point to the negative effect this process is having on the nearby estuaries. The polluted water from Lake Okeechobee has comprised the mix of salt and fresh water in the estuaries. The water has been found to have toxic algae, therefore officials at the Health Department are advising locals to stay away from it. The transfer of polluted water has also caused oyster reefs and sea grass beds to die, and manatees’ health to be affected.

Lake Okeechobee has faced a myriad of other problems in the past. In 2007, state water and wildlife managers had to remove thousands of truckloads of toxic, arsenic-filled mud from the lake’s floor during a drought. In 2008, portions of the lake bed dried out and caught on fire. And in late 2008, a tropical storm caused a four foot increase in water, which not only killed fish but also led to polluted water run-off into local land.

Due to the problems the lake has caused and protests from local citizens, Florida governor Rick Scott has proposed a two-part, $130 million plan. The first part of the plan will allow more water to flow south into the Everglades, which will ease the pressure on the lake. The second part of the plan will clean more of the polluted water that flows into the lake from the St. Lucie River Basin.

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