The federal government is cutting a half-billion-dollar check to finally finish shoring up the failing dike around Lake Okeechobee.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to spend more than $500 million — part of $17.4 billion Congress set aside earlier this year for hurricane-ravaged states — to complete ongoing repairs to the aging, leak-prone levee by 2022, said spokesman John Campbell.
"Before it was 2022 if a whole bunch of things happened," he said.
State leaders have pressured the federal agency to fix the dike since a 2006 engineering report pronounced the massive earthen ring around Florida's largest lake "a grave and imminent danger to the people and environment of South Florida."
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But it's far from clear whether structural fixes will also help avoid the kind of algae crisis now threatening to slime the St. Lucie estuary and Caloosahatchee River after blooms appeared in June and quickly blanketed the lake — only the latest in a string of damaging releases over the last decade. The Corps tries to keep the lake at specific levels during the rainy season, in large part to protect the dike from leaks or worse failures. In May, following record rain, the agency again began releasing lake water laced with high levels of fertilizer nutrients to the coasts, a surge that experts say feeds the blooms. The Corps eased up on flushing after the bloom deepened, but it plans to resume releases Monday.
Fixing the dike means the Corps will reconsider how much water it can hold in the lake. But the process typically takes three years. There are also flood control, safety and environmental issues to be weighed. Marshes at the lake's western edge, for instance, also attract anglers from around the world and raising lake levels could drown them, harming the fishery.
"If you hold more water in the lake, you have to remember the lake is an ecosystem and the lake has habitat critical for wildlife," said Audubon Florida's Celeste De Palma.
She cautioned that the planned dike repairs will make it stronger but holding more water in the lake could reduce the safety margin.
"We’re patching it up. We’re not making it taller. So if you want to put more water in the dike, you’re essentially putting people back in harm’s way," De Palma said.
Lake levels have been the source of debate for a dozen years or more. In 2008, the Corps set new lake levels after Hurricane Katrina caused levees to collapse in New Orleans in 2005 and triggered catastrophic flooding blamed for hundreds of deaths. Under the new rules, the Corps set the range at between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet, releasing water during the rainy and hurricane seasons but holding water to supply cities and farmers during the dry season.
Historically, Lake Okeechobee, which covers a sprawling 730 square miles, was much shallower, spilling water over its bottom lip that flowed south into the Everglades. But after hurricanes repeatedly flooded communities and farm fields to the south, the Corps erected the 143-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike in the 1940s.
Repeated algae blooms that left the coasts coated with smelly, toxic slime have prompted ongoing campaigns for changes to lake levels. In 2013 and again in 2016, summer blooms hurt coastal businesses and fueled support for a massive Everglades reservoir, which is scheduled to be completed in seven years — if Congress approves funding.
After Congress agreed to include $17 billion for hurricane recovery in the budget, Florida lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Brian Mast, who represents the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County, made it clear dike repairs were on their wish list.
Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging Nelson for his Senate seat, has also made the repairs a priority and last year agreed to chip in $50 million to speed up work. Scott has also personally lobbied President Donald Trump for hastier repairs and over the last month, pressed state and federal agencies to address the algae crisis.
The Corps, which has slowly been overhauling the dike's weak spots, on Thursday announced the decision to spend another $514 million to finish the job.
"Floridians deserve this project to be completed and since Congress failed to deliver, Governor Scott stepped up and made this project a reality,” spokesman John Tupps said in an email Friday.
Altogether, the Corps' Jacksonville district received more than $4 billion from the hurricane fund that includes money for repairs in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Money should help complete 19 projects, many that help reduce flooding from storms, and 13 studies, a Corps statement said.