By William J. Sobczak and Robert V. Sobczak
Introductory excerpt from a draft paper
Did you know that if you straightened it out, the 143-mile long earthen mound that surrounds Lake Okeechobee would stretch from Florida’s East to West Coast (i.e. Palm Beach to Sanibel, Florida). Yet few people make the trek into central Florida to visit the dike.
Lake Okeechobee – not Herbert Hoover Dike – is the more common destination point.
Listen to the Audio Introduction
How big is Lake Okeechobee?
- Okeechobee originates from the Seminole Indian terms “oki” and “chubi,” which literally translates into “Big Water,” and indeed it is. Situated in the center of the peninsula, it is the largest freshwater body in the Southeastern United States (2nd largest in the U.S., excluding Hawaii and Alaska), spanning 730 square miles and 5 counties (Glades, Marketing, Hendry, Palm Beach, and Okeechobee counties), and contains water as far as the eye can see. Standing at its eastern shore – at Port Mayaka or the Pahokee Marina – the expansive lake looks more reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico or some other saltwater sea, not a land-enclosed lake.
- The Lake is so large that it even influences regional precipitation patterns by stifling daytime heating and the convectional rise of air that brings ample afternoon showers to much of peninsula Florida. As a result, the Lake receives less rainfall than the rest of south Florida.
- And who could deny, from a bird’s eye view, Lake Okeechobee’s place as perhaps the Sunshine States most iconic geographic feature other than its long coastline. Simplified maps of the state invariable include three things: the panhandle to the west, the peninsula jutting to the south and Lake Okeechobee, in the middle of it all, also known as the “Big O,” “liquid heart of Florida,” “Lake O,” or simply “The Lake” which is always capitalized in homage to the oversized area and role it consumes in Florida life (Figure 1).
Yet, despite the oversized aura it invokes both inside and outside the state – somewhat surprisingly the most common experience for those closest to it, driving by it from either coast, is to miss it completely.
How is that even possible?
The reason is the 12 meter (35 ft) high grassy hill or mound that blocks the view. Not a natural feature at all, the well-trimmed rise is a 143-mile long levee that forms the perimeter of the modern-day lake.
Interestingly – and a hint to the primary thesis of this paper – it is the shape of the levee, not the Lake itself, that forms the recognizable 730 square mile area that we know as the modern-day lake today. With the exception of an opening at Fisheating Creek that allows the stream to free flow into the Lake’s at its western shore, the rest of the Lake (almost its entirely) is walled off from the lands that surrounded it. Surface-water inflows and outflows to the lake no longer occur naturally, but rather are regulated through a series of human-operated structures and gated culverts.
Thus the question can be raised:
Is it still appropriate to call Lake Okeechobee a lake at all? Would the name Okeechobee Reservoir be a better fit?
As for a clear view of the lake, one would think climbing to the top of the levee, the highest spot for miles around, would reveal its large expanse. But not even that is a guarantee. The majority of the view from atop the 143-mile long levee is obscured by some combination of wetlands, canals, islands or other vegetation. It’s peaceful, often sunny and quite bucolic view, just not the open expanse a first-time viewer would expect.
Despite difficulty (and adventure) in trying to catch a view of it – and the sense of reward when you finally do – the Lake lies in the center of a simmering debate on how it’s water stage should be managed.
Why Lake stage matters at all isn’t intuitively obvious.
- Like any reservoir, the Lake fluctuates up and down both naturally and through anthropogenic controls – and most importantly by an official and legally-binding regulation schedule developed and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
- Yet to the naked eye, the levee towers high above the Lake’s water surface – well above the level that any flood could conceivably overtop – and also appears as equally strong at its base.
- The more common observation by the casual observer is that the levee is overdesigned. The threat of the Lake breaching such a mammoth feature seems fanciful at best.
The same casual observer may find it surprising to learn that it was problems with the structural integrity of the levee, and the threat of it breaching, that caused the government agency who built and maintains the levee – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adopt an interim (i.e. emergency) regulation schedule in 2008 until such time that the levee could be fixed. The interim regulation schedule protects the levee by keeping the Lake at a lower level.
Over a decade later, with most of the primary fixes either in place or nearing completion, the newly fortified levee is in capable of handling higher water. But how high? And what were the pros and cons of the interim operation schedule and, going back into time, all the operational schedules that came before?
The USACE is currently leading a new effort called the Lake Okeechobee System Operation Manual (or LOSOM for short) for the purpose of adoptive a new regulation schedule reflective of the fixes to the levee and other regional water management features that have come on line since 2008. As it does with all its projects, the USACE is actively engaging and seeking collaborative input from individuals and organizations with diverse perspectives.
Many stakeholders are interested in the Lake and how it is managed for the integral role it plays from environmental and human-use perspectives both internal and external to the levee.
Yet going back to the casual observer standing on top the levee at the Moore-Haven S-77 Lock and Dam on a sunny day, the overriding reaction would be a bit of a headscratcher:
- How could such a large levee be not strong enough?
- And other that breaching the levee, why does water level matter at all?
Click HERE to see a detailed history of Lake Stage.