Senate Bill 816 (SB 816) by Senator David Simmons has been filed under the auspices of laying out a proposal to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that drew international attention in 2016. The bill would likely have the State of Florida take on responsibility for repairing and operating the aging Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the Lake in order to increase water levels in Lake Okeechobee. The bill seeks to divert $1 billion from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund using Florida Forever bonds. In 2014, 75% of voters supported dedicated funding for the LATF for conservation. This is a dangerous and costly proposal that would exacerbate water quality problems, kill the abundance of fish and wildlife in Lake Okeechobee, and endanger the lives of Floridians.
SB 816 does not provide an alternative to the solutions-oriented approach in SB 10 and HB 716 to provide a southern outlet for Lake Okeechobee water while providing much-needed freshwater for the Southern Everglades and Florida Bay.
Audubon wardens have maintained a wildlife sanctuary and have had a continuous presence on Lake Okeechobee since 1935. Audubon opposes drowning 150,000 acres of valuable marsh habitat on the Lake.
SB 816 ignores past emergencies and would create new problems.
Holding More Water in Lake Okeechobee is Dangerous
Senator Simmons is ignoring expert opinions that Lake Okeechobee cannot be safely raised to 19 feet
If the State of Florida takes back control of the Lake, SB 816 proposes to hold Lake Okeechobee higher than 19 feet before maximum discharges of water from the Lake are possible. Prolonged water levels above 16 feet in the past resulted in damage to the Dike, which is now one of the most vulnerable to failure in the U.S. These threats prompted Governor Jeb Bush to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lower water levels in the Lake in 2006.
The Dike repairs underway are limited by the Corps to fixing the existing problems. They are not designed to make the Lake safe for higher water levels. Discharges to coastal estuaries occur in part to reduce the pressure on the dike that occurs when water levels rise because there is not enough water storage capacity south of the Lake to move the water south. The Lake has never risen above 18.77 since the Herbert Hoover Dike was built in 1930 and there is no indication that a level of 19 feet will ever be safe.
These safety issues are compounded by the fact that storms or hurricanes case raise Lake Okeechobee water levels quickly. Without additional outlet capacity, water flows into the Lake about 6 times faster than it can flow out. Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 added 3 feet to the Lake in one week and another foot over the next month. Previous active hurricane seasons added 6 feet in a few months. If water levels in the Lake were already 19 feet with a large storm approaching, the Dike would have a high chance of failure with catastrophic results.
Putting an Unnecessary Burden on Florida Taxpayers
The federal government is on schedule to complete repairs by 2025 at a total cost of $1.6 billion in order to make the Herbert Hoover Dike safe for current water levels.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already repairing the Dike with federal funding. The current phase of the project alone is $800 million. SB 816 seeks to shift this burden to the State of Florida, which is an unnecessary impact to Florida taxpayers. There is no indication that Florida would be able to complete repairs any faster than the current schedule and taking back control from the federal government could delay rather than accelerate the project.
In addition to taking on responsibility for the cost of repairs, the State would be assuming the risks associated with a failure or collapse of the Dike. These damages could compare to the collapse of levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. SB 816 anticipates this, by attempting to claim Florida is immune from individual lawsuits from those affected by a Dike failure. But other private property claims against the State could be massive.
With Lake levels held dangerously high, property insurance rates for the people living south of the lake will likely skyrocket or they could become uninsurable altogether. This could be compounded by the lack of resources Florida has to respond to a disaster as compared to the federal government.
Finally, Senator Simmons seeks to pay for Dike repairs with $1 billion set aside for conservation by voters in 2014. This is not a restoration project and does not fulfill conservation objectives. Diverting a significant amount of conservation funding to construct a safety project is not in line with the will of voters and will significantly delay progress on statewide conservation goals.
Creating an Ecological Emergency:
The Simmons bill would place a world class wildlife paradise at risk. Lake Okeechobee is home to a great sports fishery and is beloved by birdwatchers and duck hunters.
By holding water at 19 feet before maximum discharges are possible, SB 816 would drown the 150,000 acres of marshes that make up some of the best wildlife habitat in the Everglades. This area provides excellent fish spawning, habitat for birds and recreation for people.
The South Florida Water Management District’s adaptive protocols for Lake Okeechobee note that above 16 feet, impacts to the Lake’s ecosystem can occur rapidly. In both 1988 and 2000, when the Lake was held chronically higher than 15 feet, “ecological emergencies” were declared on the Lake.
A deeper Lake is also a dirtier Lake. Deeper water levels stir sediments on the bottom of the Lake and drown submerged aquatic plants that otherwise help clean water. High water levels also tend to occur with large inflows that carry high nutrient loads. Conversely, in years when water levels have allowed the marsh to thrive, nutrient concentrations have decreased significantly.
Deep dirty water in the Lake will cause even more harm to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The Lake simply cannot hold an unlimited amount of water. When discharges to these estuaries are required, water released will be even more nutrient rich than the water released in 2013 and 2016. This in turn would compound the chance of toxic algae blooms and other negative impacts.
Ultimately, SB 816 is offered as an alternative to creating the long-planned reservoirs south of Lake Okeechobee that will reduce discharges to coastal estuaries and provide freshwater to the Southern Everglades and Florida Bay. But Senator Simmons’s proposal leaves the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries as the only major outlets for the Lake. This lack of options is what Everglades restoration aims to address. Without a new southern outlet, the proposal in SB 816 will not prevent the need for discharges. The discharges will simply occur under more strenuous circumstances and contain dirtier water.