Everglades Restoration: Advancing Key Priority Projects VIEW
In Southwest Florida, we have two government agencies responsible for making this beautiful place we call home habitable for people. I have the honor of chairing the Big Cypress Basin Board and serving on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board. Even if you haven’t heard of these agencies, you have very likely benefitted from the services they provide. Together, they manage the flood protection system, ensure adequate water supply for our communities, and safeguard the precious natural resources for our area. The two agencies have received much more attention lately because of our new Governor and his unwavering commitment to tackling Florida’s tough water issues.
As a resident of Marco Island for many years, I want to call your attention to the faraway lake that plays such an important role in the Everglades, which our communities border. That is the famed Lake Okeechobee. This beautiful lake is probably the most important body of water in Florida and is definitely the largest.
Indian Prairie Marsh Lake Okeechobee
In fact, you cannot have a conversation about protecting residents in South Florida from flooding, as well as restoring and protecting the quality of water and the ecosystems that provide the quality of life for all species, human or otherwise, without mentioning Lake “O.” This lake is also crucial to ensuring adequate water supply for families, businesses, and the environment to thrive now and in the future. I am honored to be part of the effort to restore the lake and the Everglades which depend on the lake. For all those reasons, and more, I’d like to tell you a little bit about Lake O and how it impacts us all.
Lake Okeechobee was named by Native Americans and means "big water.” Measuring 730 square miles, it is not only the biggest lake in Florida, but is also the largest lake in the southeastern United States. This shallow lake is commonly referred to as the “Liquid Heart of the Everglades” for good reason. Just about everything in South Florida’s ecosystem, from the Everglades to places like Marco Island, is impacted by what happens in Lake Okeechobee and its neighboring wetlands.
Lake Okeechobee Map View
Most of the water that enters the lake begins far north in swamps near Orlando, reaching the lake via the Kissimmee River. The waters then flow south from the lake and reach all the way to Florida Bay, the large bay between the mainland of Florida and the iconic chain of islands called the Florida Keys. Water also escapes the lake through human-made changes that connected rivers to the east and west from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries. These are better known as the St. Lucie Estuary in Martin County and the Caloosahatchee Estuary in Lee County.
In the past, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, as a whole, were much larger. Back then, the heavy rains natural and crucial to our environment would cause Lake O to routinely overflow its southern banks. Although this provided flow that was needed for the environment, the torrent of water, especially during the wet season, could cause dangerous and even fatal flooding for communities south of the lake.
Talking About Lake Okeechobee with Audubon's Dr. Paul Gray
Almost a century ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to this seasonal flooding and built the massive 143 mile-long earthen Herbert Hoover Dike. It contained the lake and also made it smaller and deeper. This dike around the lake and the regional flood control system, built in large part by the Army Corps and operated by the South Florida Water Management District, protect all our homes from being flooded after a storm and allow us to live in South Florida. Without the dike and the series of canals and flood control structures in and around the lake, South Florida would likely be uninhabitable much of the year and most certainly would not be the thriving area it is today.
The Army Corps is currently rehabilitating that aging earthen dike to ensure it continues to protect residents around the lake from breeching and floods. That rehabilitation is scheduled to be finished by 2022.
Eel Grass on Edge of Lake Okeechobee
Lake Okeechobee also provides natural habitat for fish, wading birds and other wildlife, including many threatened and endangered species. It is a world-class bass fishery that attracts fishing tournaments and boating and recreation enthusiasts from around the world.
Numerous restoration efforts are underway, including critical environmental projects like the much-needed Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, championed by Gov. DeSantis, as well as changes to how the lake is operated to better manage the flow of water from the lake into the estuaries and the Everglades. These efforts, complemented by the construction of wetlands that use nature’s own technology to remove nutrients from water, will continue to improve the quality of water in the lake, in the coastal estuaries and the Everglades. They will help to ensure that Lake Okeechobee and all of the areas it impacts continue to be healthy and beautiful now and in the future.
Lake Okeechobee is not only “Big Water,” but also is “beautiful water;” and it is “crucial water” for everyone and everything in South Florida. The lake provides flood protection and water supply and is essential to the survival of the ecosystem so critically vital to South Florida. For that reason, we should all appreciate, protect and defend our Lake Okeechobee – that wondrous lake in in the middle of the Florida peninsula visible from space!