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Hurricanes reverse lake conservation

Storms wipe out four years of efforts to restore Lake Okeechobee by raising the water levels and killing the plants.

By Associated Press
Published October 25, 2004

LAKE OKEECHOBEE - Standing on an airboat, state biologist Donald Fox surveyed the dying bare stalks peeking out of the coffee-brown lake water.

This past summer, Fox said, the vegetation here was so lush and thick it could conceal a boat of duck hunters - the result of four years of intense conservation efforts. But four hurricanes in six weeks shredded the plants, left the water several feet too high and chased off small wading birds, who need shallow water to forage for food.

"Basically, we're back to square one," Fox said. "It was very devastating."

Lake Okeechobee felt the effects of all four hurricanes that swept over Florida in August and September. The lake took direct hits from Frances and Jeanne, a near hit from Charley, which drenched the Kissimmee basin that drains into the lake, and was soaked again by the remnants of Ivan.

The same winds and rain that left at least 83 people dead in Florida and caused an estimated $18-billion in insured losses ravaged the lake. Winds of at least 79 mph and devastating storm surges left the shoreline littered with carcasses of alligators, fish and birds.

The storms also flooded the lake's tributaries, which caused the lake level to rise about a foot a week from 12.8 feet before Charley, which hit southwestern Florida on Aug. 13, to a crest at just over 18 feet.

The lake, the second largest freshwater lake within the contiguous United States behind Lake Michigan, is critical to the health of the Everglades and is commonly known as the state's "liquid heart."

The combined effect of flooding and other damage could wipe out an entire generation of the lake's prized game fish - black crappie and largemouth bass, Fox said. Sport fishing brings in $100-million annually to the economically depressed area.

"The worst thing that can happen for the environment in this area is what happened," said David Bogardus, a field officer for the World Wildlife Fund.

Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by the 143-mile Herbert Hoover dike. The earthen dike, standing up to 45 feet high, was built in the 1950s in part to prevent a disaster like that in 1928, when flooding and storm surge from the lake, caused by a hurricane, killed more than 2,000 people.

But the dike also prevents the lake from expanding into its natural flood plain. Instead, the water level rises, drowning plants that provide a habitat for fish and stabilize the lake bottom.

The lake was intentionally kept at a higher level, around 16 feet, throughout most of the 1990s because it was used for flood control and a backup water supply for heavily populated southeastern Florida.

That killed much of the bulrush, hydrilla, eelgrass and other plants, to the detriment of the game fish. After four years of conservation efforts - which began with lowering the lake level - the plants were recovering.

"It's kind of like building a pasture," Fox said. "You put the grass on it before you put the cows on it."

As a result, the fish and bird populations were rebounding, including endangered species such as the snail kite bird.

"Things were just getting perfect," Fox said.

Then the hurricanes hit, and the water level rose again. The storms also churned up sediment and phosphorus on the lake bottom, which makes the water a thick, muddy brown and blocks light to vegetation below.

Many plants were ripped up and left in the lake to rot. In some areas, the plants are decomposing underwater. The air smells of methane, like a dairy barn, and the water is thick like stew.

No plants or animals that need oxygen can live there, Fox said, and it could take months or years to recover.

State and federal officials are working to lower the water level by releasing water through the lake's only two outlets - east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico.

At its peak, the lake was taking in 40,000 cubic feet of water per second, said Susan Sylvester, water management technical specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers. That would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in about three seconds.

The lake can only drain about 15,000 cubic feet of water per second, she said. Recently water managers have been able to release more water than was coming in, Sylvester said. "We feel like we're catching up."

But it's a delicate balance. They can't release too much water at once, because that could damage the lake's two outlets by skewing the saltwater-freshwater ratio of the the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

Sylvester said she expected the lake to return to a healthy level - between 13.5 feet and 15.5 feet - by spring, although the predicted wet winter could stymie those plans.

State and federal officials are trying to solve the lake's flooding problem by building reservoirs so they have places to put water other than Lake Okeechobee.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jeb Bush announced he would expedite a $1-billion plan to build three reservoirs. The reservoirs are part of the $8.4-billion Everglades restoration plan. The first would be ready in 2009 and the last in 2011.

The World Wildlife Fund is working with local cattle ranchers to find other solutions. They're studying whether it would be cost effective to pay ranchers to store water on their land.

That would also restore some of the natural water movement, which has been altered by canals and dikes, said Sarah Lynch, senior program officer at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

Meanwhile, Fox had to leave the lake to find the small wading birds, which were crowding a ditch off the Okee-Tantie Marina, on the north side of the lake. They had found water shallow enough to forage for food.

Over time, the birds will fly farther and farther away looking for a suitable habitat, he said. "The water's got to go down."

[Last modified October 25, 2004, 02:35:37]

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