Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Rather than risk a flooding catastrophe, we’ve opted for an environmental disaster

We’re stuck with the merely terrible — toxic algae-choked lagoons and rivers exacerbated by massive amounts of water flushed out of Lake Okeechobee.

Better, I suppose, than the horrible. That the coming rainy season would add so much more water to the lake that the antique Herbert Hoover Dike could burst.

A piece of public art, next to the library in Belle Glade, offers a harrowing reminder of what that would mean to the farming communities clustered around the old earthen dam. The bronze sculpture depicts a father and mother, their faces etched in terror. A young boy clings to their legs. The mother clutches her baby. Waves curl up around their feet. The doomed family stands on a block of stone, carved with houses, trees and tangled bodies floating in flood waters.

The Ferenc Varga bronze commemorates that hellish September day in 1928 when an earlier version of the dam failed and 1.6 trillion gallons of water swept over the little farm communities around the lake. Some 2,500 perished.

More than a memorial, the artwork offers a frightening warning of what another breach might mean in modern times, now that some 40,000 people live in the vicinity. In 2006, engineers hired by the state warned that there was an “imminent probability” that the 143-mile dike would fail.

The report calculated “an even chance that the Herbert Hoover Dike System will experience at least one failure in the next four years, a 90 percent chance within 13 years and a statistical certainty (95 percent chance) of one or more failures in the next 17 years.”

Obviously, the dam has held up better than supposed. It helped that the dam hasn’t been tested by the drenching effects of hurricanes. And the Army Corps of Engineers has spent $300 million over the past decade replacing culverts and hardening the dike.

But the repair project is still years from completion. The Corps, mindful of how hurricane rains caused the 1928 catastrophe, has been opening the spillways. The Sun Sentinel reported that the Corps has been sending a billion gallons of water a day surging west into the Caloosahatchee River and east into the St. Lucie River over the last month. The Corps intends to lower the lake depth to about 12.5 feet before hurricane season begins on June 1. On Wednesday, the Corps reported that the lake depth averaged 12.94 feet.

The Corps is fending off the horrible. But not without some pretty terrible side effects. Environmentalists are convinced that this month-long infusion of algae-laden lake water, laden with farm nutrients and pesticides, are killing the downstream waterways.

Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Corps, claiming that the nasty deluge out of Lake Okeechobee was ruining the habitat for the very endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

Nor is it doing much for human habitation. On Friday the Corps announced that it had “temporarily suspended swimming and other water activities at the W.P. Franklin South Recreation Area located near Fort Myers.” The Corps said “an algal bloom upstream of the beach had tested positive for microcystin, a substance produced by freshwater cyanobacteria.” Which means it’s dangerous for people, as well as wildlife.

The Martin County Health Department posted large unnerving signs stating “blue green algae levels. Avoid contact with water.”

Gary Kuhl, the former executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, wrote an op-ed that ran in the Stuart News Sunday declaring, “It is easy to see, without benefit of scientific help, the downfall of Indian River Lagoon, the St. John’s River, Silver Springs, Apalachicola Bay and Lake Okeechobee, to name a few. Compare photographs of any of these bodies of water and you will see how years of dumping fertilizer, pesticides, untreated storm water runoff, sewage and animal waste into our surface and groundwater has changed their quality.”

Residents along those waterways claim their health is suffering. And they complain of an awful smell, like rotten eggs, emanating from the waters.

So instead of risking a tsunami-like flood, we’ve opted for another kind of disaster — a stinking, wildlife killing, tourist repelling, health threatening catastrophe.

As if those were our only choices.

The other option would be exercising the state’s option to buy 46,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar. The 2010 deal was crafted to provide land for massive storage ponds below the lake where polluted waters coming out of the spillways could be diverted and cleansed before being discharged into the estuaries.

Money for the purchase would be available through a constitutional amendment approved by a 75 percent majority of voters last fall to fund conservation land purchases with a portion of real estate transaction fees.

Except the very influential sugar company no longer likes the deal, which means our governor and state Legislature have lost all enthusiasm for the purchase.

So unless the putrid smell of the dying estuaries fed by polluted lake waters reaches Tallahassee during next month’s special session, we’re stuck with only the terrible option.