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The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District began opening the flood gates to Lake Okeechobee to lower the water levels in the lake which have risen to over 15 ½ feet. Anything over that level is deemed dangerous to the levee system which surrounds the lake. The water is being released down the Caloosahatchee River at a rate of 70,000 gallons per second. The heavy rains from this winter season have saturated the lands which drain into the Kissimmee River water basin where the lake gets much of it’s water supply.
Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by a levee system of dirt and concrete steel berms that extend for 143 miles around the lake. Lake Okeechobee is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the United States and is 730 sq. miles. across its surface. The levee system was started in 1915 and enlarged by the Army Corp. of Engineers to protect the people and town south of the lake from flooding when the lakes’ waters traditionally overflowed its banks and travelled south towards the Everglades. Hurricanes in the 1920’s and 1940’s caused massive flooding when the levees were breeched and flood waters from the lake resulted in loss of life for the people living near the lake. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers were connected to the lake to create a navigable waterway between the east and west coast of Florida and to create spillways for lake water when Lake Okeechobee gets too high.
The problem with the massive water releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St Lucie River Estuaries are the large amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that are in the lake water which causes algae blooms and fish die-offs when it reaches the brackish and salty waters in the river and the Gulf of Mexico. City leaders on Sanibel and Ft. Myers Beach, home owners, environmentalists and tourists are not happy when they see the river and beaches fouled by dead fish, and brown colored water. They want the state and federal government to speed up the process of creating water basins which can be used to hold some of these water releases instead of the rivers being used as spillways and discharge points. The problem seems to be the cost of creating these water storage basins along the river and south Lake Okeechobee which can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. State legislators and the federal government have been hard pressed to spend the extra money which is needed to protect our fragile environment.