By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News
OKEECHOBEE — You walk into your bathroom and see the bathtub is overflowing. What would you do?
Would you run a hose out the window? Would you gather up pots and pans to store the water? Would you buy a bigger bathtub? Or, would you turn off the tap, and then attempt to unclog the drain?
Think of Lake Okeechobee as a bathtub. During the rainy season, water pours in much too fast from the north – as much as six times faster than it can be released through existing structures. Making matters worse, the flow south is often blocked. The bottom end of the system is dammed by the Tamiami Trail and flow under existing raised portions of the roadway is limited six months of the year to protect the nesting area of an endangered bird.
So, the overflow is released east and west.
Freshwater releases from the lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are blamed for disrupting salinity levels which make those estuaries – already nutrient rich from runoff into the local basins – ripe for algae blooms. (The lake water is also often unfairly blamed for the nutrient load in those estuaries despite the University of Florida Water Institute studies which found that most of the excess phosphorus and nitrogen comes from direct runoff into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie canal.)
While some are quick to blame the lake for the algae blooms in the coastal waterways, or demand water managers to “restore the flow” and “send it south,” the answer is not that simple.
If it were possible to restore the natural flow, much of the water that is released east and west to the coastal estuaries during the rainy season would not flow south because it would evaporate into the air or percolate into the earth long before it ever reached the lake.
Consider: The original Everglades starts at Shingle Creek.
Currently, the heaviest flow of water into the lake comes down “the ditch” – what locals call the channelized Kissimmee River. Water managers call it the C-38 canal. The Kissimmee River once meandered for 103 miles, through curves that according to Seminole legend were created by the writhing of a giant snake. During the wet season, the river’s floodplain reached up to 3 miles across. In the 1960s, the Kissimmee River was channelized by cutting and dredging a 30-feet-deep straightaway through the river’s meanders. This flood control project drained land for urban development and agriculture in the northern Everglades…