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Proposed Reservoir Thrusts Lake Okeechobee Into Debate

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Amy Green
The Florida Channel
The bulrushes rimming Lake Okeechobee form trails for boaters.

Mary Ann Martin motors the trails carved among the grassy bulrushes rimming Lake Okeechobee, emerging on a watery expanse that ends where blue meets blue at the horizon.

“This is the Big O. Isn’t it beautiful? Blows your mind. You can’t see hardly across the lake.”

She cuts the pontoon boat’s engine. In the distance anglers fish for bass, catfish and crappie. Cormorants and pelicans take flight from a small island, their wings beating the water’s surface.

For 35 years Martin has made a living from the lake as the owner of the Roland Martin Marina and Resort, on its south shore in Clewiston.

“When I saw this lake I fell in love with it. And it speaks to you if you just sit, listen. You hear the birds? It’s just amazing. It’s full of life,” says Martin.

The state’s largest lake will be at the center of debate over a reservoir proposed for Everglades restoration.

Focus was on Lake Okeechobee last year as its excess water inundated estuaries on Florida’s east and west coasts, triggering toxic algae blooms that prompted emergency declarations in four counties. The lake serves as the liquid heart of the Everglades.

“It’s hard to describe how much water this is,” says Audubon of Florida scientist Paul Gray.

He says a reservoir south of the lake is aimed at restoring a more natural flow of water south in the river of grass. That’s as new research calls for much more water storage throughout the Lake Okeechobee and Everglades regions.

“What if we had a landowner who had 40 square miles, and you said, Hey, can we put a foot of water on your land? And they said, Sure, we don’t care if you kill everything. How would you pump that much water in one day?” Gray says. “That’s just really hard, and then you’ve only taken care of one day out of 60 or 90 days of releases. And so these are the volumes of water that we’re trying to deal with.”

Historically the lake spilled its excess water over its southern brim, creating a shallow sheet that was the Everglades. After deadly hurricanes in the 1920s and 1940s the lake was contained within an earthen dike that today is among the nation’s most urgently in need of repair.

“The Herbert Hoover Dike, we’ve said for several years now is not a structure we have a lot of faith in, in terms of being able to withstand high water levels,” says John Campbell of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He stands atop the dike in Clewiston, eyeing a construction site 30 feet below. The project is part of a billion-dollar dike refurbishment scheduled to be complete in 2025.

“One of the big reasons we release water is to protect the integrity of the dike,” Campbell says. “Lake Okeechobee already has a history of taking large amounts of human life.”

Hurricanes in the 1920s killed thousands, as described in the Zora Neale Hurston novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The corps will look into storing more water in the lake as the rehabilitation nears completion. But there are ecological concerns about that, especially for the grass beds that provide important habitat for spawning fish and other species.

“If the intent of this levee is to build it strong enough to hold 18, 19 feet lake level you have just put a knife into this lake, into the heart of this lake,” says marina owner Mary Ann Martin, who’s worried about the ecological impacts of a rising lake.

At a lakeside marina in Pahokee a Great Blue Heron squawks as it flaps into the air. Diana Jenkins reels in a crappie. It squirms on the pavement.

At stake here is an economy reliant on Lake Okeechobee and the farmlands the reservoir would replace. The region is the nation’s largest producer of sugar cane. But Jenkins isn’t worried about that now. She fishes here nearly every day.

“I love it. It’s very relaxing, just to come and sit by the water. Whether you catch fish or not it’s still all right,” she says.

She plans on cooking up her catch for her family.