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Human Interaction

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Hamilton Disston.

Humans starting “managing” Lake Okeechobee in 1847, just two years after Florida was granted statehood. By 1882, through the efforts of the “Drainage King,” Hamilton Disston, the lake was connected to the Gulf of Mexico. On the other side, it reached the Atlantic Ocean in 1926 via the new St. Lucie Canal. The lake was considerably smaller after its reach was extended, because its level was lower. But that was the point.

When the human population around the lake reached about 2,000, the state constructed an earthen 47-mile levee along the southern shore to protect residents and their crops from flooding. But a hurricane in 1926 pushed storm waters over the levee, destroying 13,000 homes and farms and killing over 400 people. An even more devastating hurricane in 1928 caused an avalanche of water from Lake Okeechobee to fall on surrounding towns, drowning at least 3,000 people.

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Dredging the dike at Lake Okeechobee.

To prevent a recurrence of such tragedies, President Herbert Hoover approved a plan to build a much larger dike around Lake Okeechobee. Early work on the project provided jobs for many people during the Great Depression. Completion took 38 years, but today the 151-mile Herbert Hoover Dike completely surrounds the lake to protect farmers and their rich farmland. The dike, however, has created other problems.

Prevented from expanding into its natural flood plain, the lake has been forced to drown plants within its borders. Grasses such as bulrush, spikerush, and beakrush provide important habitat to sport fish and wading birds, stabilize the sediment at the lake’s bottom, and reduce the negative effects of waves on submerged vegetation. Since 1980 about 65% of the lake’s spikerush and beakrush has been lost due to an invasive native species such as cattail. Over 50% of the bulrush was lost during the 1990s, when water levels were kept at about 16 feet for urban and agricultural purposes. Waves stirred up sediments, making the water cloudy. Without sufficient sunlight, a variety of plants and sawgrass have died, as have the fish that depended on them. Ecologists have targeted impacted grasses for restoration efforts, and the shallow marsh around the lake’s edge still supports a variety of fish and birds. Protecting the fish habitat is also good for the economy, as the lake attracts many sportfishing enthusiasts to the area.

Lake Okeechobee’s good soil and fair climate have made the area an important crop producer, not just for Florida but for the entire nation. When the dike stopped the normal flow of water that supplied nutrients to the muck soil, farmers turned to commercial fertilizers. Since then, excess nutrients from fertilizer have flowed into the waterways, altering fragile ecosystems.

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Photograph of Hurricanes Frances and
Jeanne, 2004.

At the south end of Lake Okeechobee, the sugar industry has regularly delivered polluted flood and irrigation water to the lake to prevent sugarcane from drowning. During the 2001 drought, a naturally dropped water level brought new life into the lake. Positive results were clearly visible until August and September of 2004, when four hurricanes affected Florida, a first in recorded history. The storms left the air and water so contaminated that many plants or animals needing oxygen could not survive. So much bottom sediment was stirred up that the lake did not stabilize for years, affecting drinking water in the area.

At the north end of Lake Okeechobee, the dairy, citrus, and ranching industries have deposited tons of phosphorus annually into the lake. In 2000 the Florida legislature enacted the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan to capture and reduce the destructive chemical. Also in 2000, the state of Florida and the federal government launched the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The mandated 2008 review of the CERP concluded that it might take decades to achieve the plan’s phosphorus goals using current strategies; no system-wide accounting system was in place, for example, for phosphorus or other contaminants.

The review called Lake Okeechobee “a critical linchpin of the South Florida ecosystem.” Improving its water quality is important not only to the life within and near the lake, but also to ecosystems downstream and as an important part of water storage in restoration of the historic Everglades.

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