tampabay.com

Okeechobee gets a cleanup

The drought provides an opportunity to truck tons of muck away.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 25, 2007


WEST PALM BEACH - State water and wildlife managers are taking advantage of unprecedented drought conditions by removing enough life-choking muck along Lake Okeechobee's shoreline to fill Dolphin Stadium from the field to its highest seat.

The 500, 000 cubic yards of rotted, dead plant life and sediment are being trucked from the southwest portion of the lake to pastures for disposal. Its removal over several months will return the lake's bottom along its shoreline in that area to a more natural sandy base and create clearer water and better habitat for plants and wildlife.

Lake Okeechobee is a backup drinking water source for millions in South Florida and the lifeblood of the Everglades. It has dropped to near its record low after months of drought that experts say is the worst the region has ever seen.

While the drought has led to severe water restrictions across the state, it has presented an opportunity to clean portions of the highly polluted lake as water levels have dropped enough to expose typically submerged shoreline.

The muck has accumulated over the years under hurricane-deepened waters and is choking life from the lake's shore. It prevents sunlight from reaching the bottom, keeps fish from laying eggs there and inhibits plant growth.

Portions of shoreline will soon see the return of wading birds, fish and native plants long smothered by the blanket of muck, which has now been baked in the sun and is more of a dry, soil-like material, said Don Fox, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Fish haven't bred

He said fish breeding attempts in the areas have been futile.

"When they try to lay eggs in this muck, they just sink down. There's low oxygen content and they just die, " Fox said.

The initial removal is part of an $11.5-million project that will eventually take out about 3.8-million cubic yards of muck along up to 15 miles of shoreline, Fox said. It is the largest ever such project at the 730-square-mile body of water, the second-largest freshwater lake in the contiguous United States and visible from space.

Much of the lake's problems lie in its high phosphorous levels, which cause pollution in estuaries and in the Everglades. The majority of that life-killing nutrient is buried in muck at the lake's center - about 50, 000 tons of it over 300 square miles, experts say. State water managers are still devising a plan to get that out.

This latest project will remove some phosphorous but it's intention is aimed more at habitat restoration.

"The big benefit will be getting that material off the lake bottom so we can get the plant life back and restore the fisheries habitat, " said Susan Gray, deputy executive director of watershed management for the South Florida Water Management District, which is working on the effort with the wildlife commission. "But when you get the vegetation growing back in the lake, you also get an improved ability for the lake to absorb phosphorous."

A step, but only a step

Audubon of Florida scientist Paul Gray called the effort "a step in the right direction, " but noted "it's not going to save the lake."

"It's still a really good thing, " Gray said. "But if the lake would fluctuate normally, we wouldn't have to do this. Mother Nature would fix it."

Lake Okeechobee has suffered from years of dikes, dams and diversions intended for flood control. Its main water source, the Kissimmee River, starting to the north near Orlando, was diverted in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers with a monstrous pencil-straight canal.

The move hastened the river flow and flushed massive amounts of water and pollution from urban runoff and agriculture into the lake. The corps is working to restore the river.