Lake Okeechobee reached 17.16 feet above sea level today, the highest level in more than a decade and a trigger for increased inspections of the vulnerable southern half of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
The Army Corps of Engineers will begin daily inspections of the southern portion of the dike. It had been conducting twice-weekly reviews as the dike swelled to more than 16 feet. A month ago, Lake Okeechobee was at 13.6 feet. Gov. Rick Scott is taking a tour of the dike this morning.
“It’s very similar to Tropical Storm Isaac from 2012 when we went from 12.25 feet to 16 in a span of six weeks,” said Corps spokesman John Campbell. “It wasn’t just Irma. We had the unnamed system last week, but named or unnamed it certainly was a precipitation event.”
The Corps likes to keep the lake at or below 15.5 feet above sea level.
On Friday, the Corps said the lake had been rising since Hurricane Irma swept through the state Sept. 10, but that no problems had been observed.
“This was the third week of increased inspections of the dike that our teams have conducted since Irma passed,” said Laureen Borochaner, Jacksonville District Engineering Division Chief and Dam Safety Officer. “The continuation of rain in the area and high water levels in canals has left some saturated soil in spots, but close observation by inspectors found no areas of concern. All is as expected.”
The corps built the dike after hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 took more than 3,200 lives. Although built to the highest engineering standards at that time, the corpsbuilt the dike with gravel, rock, limestone and sand, which allow water to seep through and cause erosion.
The dike originally was designed to hold back the lake’s water from flooding nearby farms and communities only during major storms and floods.
But as agriculture and the region’s population grew, so did the need for water, and officials realized they could use the dike to hold water inside the lake — like a dam. Because dams are permanent barriers that continually hold back standing water, they are built to higher safety standards.
Decades of pressure from abnormally high water levels weakened the dike and nearly caused breaches in 1995 and 1998, when the lake level climbed to 18.5 feet.
Governor Scott has urged the Trump administration to accelerate dike repairs so they are completed in 2022 rather than the scheduled 2025. That would require Congress to appropriate $200 million a year from 2019 to 2022 — far more than Trump has proposed or Congress has ever approved in the past.
Scott also worked with the Florida legislature to invest $50 million to speed up repairs.