Epic rainfall and flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey, along with the immediate threat to Florida from Hurricane Irma, underscore the need, valueand wisdom of accelerating renovations to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
Since the dike’s construction in the 1930s, the depth of water in Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding has been as high 17.5 feet. But over the years, age and seepage have weakened the HHD to the point where the depth of water allowable to prevent a catastrophic failure has been reduced to a fluctuating “safe” level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. To protect the safety of surrounding communities, repairs to the dike have been underway for the past several years. Once completed, the repairs will strengthen the dike’s ability to hold more water.
The need is obvious; the lives of thousands depend upon the HHD’s integrity. When lesser dikes were breached during the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, flooding swept homes off their foundations. In addition to the approximately 2,500 lives officially lost, another 2,500 are believed to have been simply swept away into the Everglades, never to be recovered and recorded. The town of Belle Glade, only months old, was nearly destroyed. A stronger HHD would prevent this from happening again.
A failure of the HHD would have catastrophic effects on the individual prosperity of private land owners and the collective economy of Florida. The 1928 hurricane brought agricultural production to a standstill as 100 square miles of previously productive lands were flooded, and our agriculture industry simply cannot afford that kind of shutdown – in 2015, receipts from agricultural products grown in Florida were $8.4 billion. Today’s Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee is a major economic contributor to Florida’s economy and is the major winter provider for fruits and vegetables in the United States. Flooding across the region, even temporarily, would be a tremendous loss.
Earlier this year, a James Madison Institute research paper entitled “Sticker Shock” estimated the loss of 60,000 productive EAA acres would eliminate more than 4,000 jobs and have a negative impact of $695 million annually. One can only imagine the negative impact of an HHD catastrophic failure flooding the 700,000 acres of the EAA. A stronger dike would protect the value of these lands and this huge contributor to Florida’s economy.
Wisdom would dictate accelerating the goal of renovating the Herbert Hoover Dike. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is currently working on, and funding, a $930 million plan to repair the HHD by 2025. In a recently released report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress advises that the HHD could be renovated in half that time, by 2021, if funding were to be accelerated. Were Florida to advance these funds to the Army Corps, the repairs would allow an additional 1.25 feet of depth in the lake, increasing storage capacity by an additional 564,00 acre-feet of water.
While this concept was raised in the 2017 regular Florida legislative session, competing priorities kept the idea from gaining much traction. Considering what Houston and surrounding communities just endured, and the imminent threat of a storm even worse than Harvey bearing down on Florida at this very moment, we should make the repairs to the HHD a critical priority for Florida.
The recent tragic events of Texas should be a wake-up call to Florida. We must do everything possible to avoid a similar disaster in our state. Strengthening the HHD will protect against catastrophic flooding by increasing Lake Okeechobee’s ability to capture more water during heavy rain events. That will also help reduce the need for the massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee that produce substantial algae blooms. Clearly, action to protect the lives and property of Floridians is always good public policy.
Dan Peterson is the director for the Center for Property Rights at The James Madison Institute.