Florida’s greatest lake was in the news this year for all the wrong reasons. Record phosphorus inflows, persistent harmful blue-green algal blooms, high water levels, and harmful estuary releases inundated Lake Okeechobee and the downstream ecosystems. But it didn’t always used to be that way. Lake Okeechobee was once a healthy and vibrant biological hotspot. The healthy lake had so much birdlife that Audubon funded armed wardens beginning in 1936 to protect its iconic wading birds. And, in 1938, Florida’s Governor and Cabinet designated two areas on Lake Okeechobee as Wildlife Sanctuaries and entrusted Audubon with their protection. Eighty years later, Audubon continues protecting these 29,000 acres of marsh areas. Now scientists and policy experts, not wardens, continue Audubon’s fight to protect the liquid heart of America’s Everglades.
Bringing Lake Okeechobee back to full health is the key to a fully restored Greater Everglades Ecosystem with both water management and water quality playing integral roles. Here’s what you need to know about the two most important issues facing the iconic Lake Okeechobee:
Water Levels in the Lake Must Protect Communities, Water Quality, and Wildlife
Lake Okeechobee’s watershed is five times the size of the actual lake. In fact, Lake Okeechobee receives water from as far north as Orlando and west through the Lake Istokpoga and Fisheating Creek watersheds. With very wet events like heavy rains and hurricanes, the lake often experiences rapid and uncontrolled rises in its water level. This, coupled with a shrunken Everglades footprint and manmade changes to the watershed, is why Everglades restoration envisions additional water storage projects north, east, south and west of the lake.
The Army Corps of Engineers prefers low water levels for the safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects communities south of the lake from flooding. State water managers, on the other hand, favor higher water levels to ensure ample water supply for farms and cities. This safety-vs-water supply conundrum creates a tug-of-war that hurts the lake and the estuaries. Audubon scientists recommend a balanced approach that protects people, wildlife, and Okeechobee’s 150 square miles of marshes. The lake’s water levels should range from 12 feet in the dry season to 15 feet in the wet season. This range will provide larger freeboard against incoming storms, thus resulting in fewer discharges to the estuaries and reduced pressure on the dike. The current lake management keeps the lake too deep, too often- hurting both Okeechobee and the estuaries. A new lake level management planning process starts in 2019, and this is a top Audubon priority.
Better Management of Nutrient Pollution is Essential
Lake Okeechobee’s watershed is mostly agricultural. About half of the watershed is cattle ranches, and the rest is mixed with citrus, dairy farms, row crops, and small towns. Decades of over-fertilizing in this agriculture-rich area created the high phosphorus flows into the lake today. Hurricane Irma’s rains flooded the lake with water from the nutrient-rich area. This spurred the second highest phosphorus inflow on record and spawned the disastrous 2018 cyanobacteria blooms that left blue-green algae on Florida’s east and west coast beaches. More must be done to manage the nutrients flowing into the lake.
Next year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will amend a decades-old plan aimed to achieve nutrient reduction into the lake by 2034. Audubon will actively participate to ensure the plan significantly addresses the nutrient pollution plaguing the lake. Audubon experts believe the new plan must include new projects, significant funding, and a combination of regulation enforcement and landowner incentives.
Lake Okeechobee is one of the great natural resources of our nation. Its bass fishery is world famous, and its black crappie fishery can yield more fish than the rest of Florida combined. The lake is also is critical for the endangered Everglade Snail Kite, is a migratory stopover for millions of bird,and hosts a significant percent of wading bird nesting in the state. Any future decisions about Lake Okeechobee must carefully consider the impacts to communities, wildlife, and the entire ecosystem. Audubon will be there for all of them.