George Gibbs Center for Economic Prosperity

A fresh solu⁠t⁠⁠i⁠on for harmful Lake Okeechobee releases

By: The James Madison Institute / 2017

Throughout the intense debate regarding Everglades restoration, several options have been offered to address the devastating releases of water from Lake Okeechobee to the estuaries of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. However, there is one fresh and unique option that has received little attention. That option is provided by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through a recently released report by its Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress (CISRERP).

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was authorized by Congress in 2000. CISRERP was formed by a Congressional mandate and the Academy to periodically review CERP's progress. The most recent report is the sixth iteration of its biennial review and sheds light on an option that could bring relief to Florida's coastal communities faster and at less expense than previously offered ideas. Their proposal: store massive amounts of excess water within the Herbert Hoover Dike (HHD) by, first, accelerating the completion of repairs to the Dike. And strengthening its integrity, so that it can safely hold more water. Here are some key facts to understand.

Since its construction in the 1930s, the regulated amount of water held in the HHD has been as high 17.5 feet. Over the years, age and seepage have weakened the HHD to the point where the depth of water allowable to prevent a catastrophic dike failure has been reduced to a fluctuating safe level of between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.

In order to protect the safety of surrounding communities, repairs to the HHD have been underway for the past several years. Once complete, the repairs will allow for an additional 1.25 feet of depth, or 564,000 acre-feet (AF) of storage, to be used when needed. An additional 1.75 feet of depth would allow up to 800,000 AF of storage.

The dike ranks as one of the greatest catastrophic flooding risks in the country, and must be fixed. Once the dike is strengthened, water managers can temporarily raise the level of the 730-square-mile lake by up to 1.25 feet when emergency wet conditions warrant it. Under the current level of federal funding, the dike is not scheduled to be completed until 2025. Experts acknowledge with accelerated funding, the HHD could be ready to store that additional 564,000 AF by 2021 (in four years).

Lake Okeechobee is a unique Florida jewel and a key element of Everglades restoration. A properly repaired HHD will protect the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries better than other options because it will be able to store more water safely. This will relieve coastal citizens from the health and economic concerns they have, relieve the agriculturalists in the EAA from their fears of being driven off their land and losing their livelihoods and, relieve people in the communities around Lake Okeechobee from the fear of flooding. It should also relieve environmentalists as progress to restoring the Everglades ecosystem is made. As projects to store and cleanse water north of the lake come on-line, the water entering the lake will also be purer.

The option of completing HHD repairs can be done quicker and with less taxpayer investment than any other options. It will also avoid the catastrophic economic consequences articulated in JMI's recent report Sticker Shock.

By loaning the federal government the repair money needed by fronting the funding ourselves, our state could guarantee that the lives of thousands of Floridians living around Lake Okeechobee and the health of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries are protected. Every moment we delay, Floridians are being hurt. Putting up the money ourselves to get the job done is worth considering. After all, it's our problem, it's our lake and the repairs will benefit our citizens.

Dan Peterson is director of the Center for Property Rights at TheJamesMadisonInstitute.