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Natural Resource Management

Record droughts in 1980 and 1981 caused countywide water use restrictions; both have become more frequent in the decades since then.

Concern over having sufficient quality water led to increased environmental awareness concerning Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Water managers conceded in 1981 that the lake was polluted. Phosphorus levels in the lake, caused by the water from farms and ranches, doubled from 1973 to 1984. Record-breaking algae bloom resulted, fed by the phosphorus.

In 1987, with pressure from the state, the first Everglades cleanup plan was created. The following year, the federal government sued the State of Florida and water managers for polluting the Everglades. Settlement of the case three years later resulted in a cleanup plan; another three years later, the state funded the plan in the Everglades Forever Act. In 1996 the U.S. Congress authorized the federal government to pay half the cost of Everglades restoration.

After a decade of planning, in the late 1990s, positive action began, but rains pushed Lake Okeechobee above 18 feet, resulting in leaks in the Herbert Hoover Dike. Despite major droughts, the lake level from 1978 to 2000 was too high—above 15 feet—more than half of the time, which destroyed the habitat of fish and birds.

In 2000 the Florida legislature enacted the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan to reduce phosphorus in the lake, which had reached three times the level scientists considered safe. A drought in 2001 brought the water level to a record low of 8.97 feet, with an unexpected benefit: new life in the lake. Progress was visible when four hurricanes in 2004 left the air and water so contaminated, that plants or animals needing oxygen could not survive.

Emergent vegetation that was lost has been replaced by new plants in old established areas, as well as in many new areas where there had been no vegetation; submerged vegetation are returning slowly. In March 2009, the water level of Lake Okeechobee was 12.56 feet, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission reported signs of spawning fish and growth throughout the lake.

Since 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working to reinforce the dike wall of the 143-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike, which is considered “one to the nation’s at risk” of failing. The first 21-mile length of the dike was completed after five years at a cost of $360 million. A study, which will take until 2014, is underway to determine how to proceed with the rest of the restoration project.

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