Water — in South Florida, we either have too much or too little. For most of 2016, heavy rains fueled by El Niño mean we’ve had too much.
The flood control system operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District has prevented loss of life and major widespread property damage so far this year. However, we remain concerned about how much rain may fall and where that water can go without causing impacts that have the potential to be worse than current conditions in south Florida estuaries.
Unseasonably wet conditions during the dry season tested our South Florida water management system. We worked alongside our state and federal partners, utilizing any flexibility we could find in the system. Despite those efforts, Lake Okeechobee recorded its highest July 1st stage since 2005. The stage of 14.93 is more than three quarters of a foot higher than this point in 2013, another challenging year for water managers.
The high lake level for this time of year is concerning for a number of reasons. During a normal wet season, the lake rises two to three feet. The National Weather Service has issued outlooks that call for above-average precipitation over the next three months, which will likely add more water. We’ve seen numerous instances over the past 20 years of tropical systems producing enough rain to cause a three- to four-foot rise in the lake. A five-foot rise in the lake from this point takes us into uncharted territory.
The highest stage recorded for Lake Okeechobee is 18.77 feet. We have seen increased seepage resulting in erosion and movement of foundation material from the dike when the lake reaches 18 feet. We want to avoid a scenario where the lake rises so high, the resulting water pressure increases the potential for erosion that could cause the dike to breach. Such a breach could cause widespread property damage and potential loss of life.
The Corps stands ready to respond should a breach scenario develop. However, part of our mitigation to prevent a breach includes managing the water level in the lake to keep it from rising too high. Unfortunately, this requires releasing water in quantities that, when combined with an equally large volume of basin runoff, upset the freshwater-saltwater mix in the estuaries. The change in that mix, coupled with hot weather, and excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in the system from a variety of sources, are all among the factors fueling the algae affecting the estuaries.
The Corps and the Water Management District are making progress on ecosystem restoration projects that will make the flood control system in south Florida more environmentally friendly. This summer, we will start efforts on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and Western Everglades Restoration projects that will look at features to address some of the flows in and around the lake.
I encourage as many people as possible to participate in this process.
We are working to expedite permits for water storage projects in accordance with the governor’s request. We continue to exchange information with state agencies on the algal bloom and other environmental issues.
We all want to see better environmental conditions in South Florida, but we must also manage water in a manner that reduces the risk of life loss or widespread property damage.
Eight million people in South Florida depend on the system to safeguard their lives and property. Flood protection is what Congress expected when they asked the Corps to develop flood control solutions, and I believe it’s ultimately what the citizens of our nation expect as well.
Col. Jason Kirk is commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.