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South/Central Florida's Drainage History

Read why the federal government controls so much of Florida's water policy.
South/Central Florida's Drainage History
Free-flowing central Florida creek leading into Orange Lake 

Part of south Florida's drainage history regarding Lake Okeechobee ("Lake O" or the "Lake") is set forth below. For a more comprehensive history, check out The Swamp: the Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald.

Why does the federal government through its Army Corp of Engineers control so much of Florida's water policy?¹

A central issue modernized Florida faces is too much water during the wet season and not enough water during the dry season.2 Because of Florida's drainage and development, this broad issue relates to algal blooms that are destructive to eastern and western coastal estuaries during the wet season and a lack of fresh water needed to sustain the southern Glades during the dry season.

Fortunately, there is a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (“CERP”), a 50/50 partnership between the Army Corp and the state of Florida, through its South Florida Water Management District (“SFWMD”), designed to address these issues.³ CERP, authorized by Congress in 2000, is one of the main Plans governing Florida water policy today.⁴

It is generally understood that Lake Okeechobee, about a hundred miles north of Everglades National Park, is the heart of the Glades, and sources most of its water from its northern watershed, the Kissimmee chain of lakes, which extends almost as far north as Orlando.⁵ In its natural form, water would spill over Lake O’s southern banks, expanding laterally and inching south in the form of a shallow, slow-moving sheet flow of fresh water that would push down hundreds of miles, contributing to the brackish water in and around Everglades National Park and continue further south into Florida Bay, where the Gulf arches alongside the Florida Keys.6  As such, this was and is to an extent an interconnected system.

In the late 1800s, agriculture was a distant but sought after goal for central Florida lands.7 Expensive waterfront properties on what is today called “improved” land (land that has been developed and is occupied by buildings and structures) were not yet within the realm of possibility.8  Draining Florida’s naturally flooded lands to “reclaim” (make a desert, wetland, or other unusable land suitable for development or farming) the land was the number one task and obstacle to human development and conquering what was generally thought of as a harsh and useless wasteland.⁹ After a dramatic series of failed attempts at drainage, Lake O was artificially connected to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, which were connected to canals, deepened, widened, and straightened as needed to facilitate large-scale drainage.10 The brackish water in the coastal estuaries at the mouths of these rivers remain some of the most productive ecosystems in the world,11 and their health has extensive implications for Florida’s marine ecosystems as their waters push to sea and are often visible up and down both coasts and for many miles offshore.

Early settlers south of Lake O constructed small embankments around the lake around 1915, but major hurricanes in the 1920’s created massive storm surges that swept over the embankments and killed over 2,500 people.12 This period of flooding spurred President Herbert Hoover to get the federal government involved in building levees around the Lake in the 1930’s.13 After another significant hurricane landed in 1947, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1948, authorizing the Central and South Florida Project (“C&SF”).14 C&SF involved the construction of an elaborate system of roads, canals, levees, and water-control structures stretching throughout South Florida.15 By the late 1960’s, Lake O would be nearly completely surrounded by a substantial dike system called the Herbert Hoover Dike.16 Every cubic foot of water that leaves Lake O’s confines has since been directed and managed by the federal government (other than through Fisheating Creek, which is the Lake’s last free flowing creek comprising a small mid-western section of the Lake17) through the Army Corp. The Army Corp remains in charge of scheduling when and where Lake O’s waters are sent to this day.18

The Glades need water sent south from Lake O, in accordance with the natural hydrologic system that was in place for roughly six thousand years before it was altered and in many places severed in the last roughly 130 years.19 However, circumstances have changed, as there are competing interests for limited water in the dry season and swathes of development and agriculture within the hydraulic flow way, with roughly 50% of the Glades even remaining.20 Additionally, the hydrology of the Caloosahatchee River (the “Caloosahatchee”) was changed so significantly in the late 1800s when it was deepened and widened and connected to Lake O that it now actually requires low volume freshwater releases from Lake O during the dry season to counteract saltwater intrusion and support its ecology.21 These factors create year round complications on how to manage the Lake, during both the wet and dry season.

The land comprising over 700,000 acres immediately south of the Lake is called the Everglades Agricultural Area (“EAA”). The EAA is mostly farmlands, with sugar companies controlling roughly 500,000 acres.22 Extensive political history aside, it is not controversial that the agricultural interest is mainly in ensuring year round irrigation, while sending water south in accordance with natural hydrology is crucial to sustaining the southern Glades. As such, there are direct competing interests over where the Lake water goes during the dry season. Further, incentives do not align on what depth to keep the Lake at any given time and how to develop reservoirs and basins that can store additional Lake water per CERP and related plans.23

The wet season is the time to store water for the dry season, while the tail end of the dry season is a time to distribute water to the extent possible in preparation for an influx of water in the wet season.24 This is a constant balancing act. During the wet season, all parties’ immediate water needs are met by an excessive amount of rain, which creates other issues.25 When Lake O levels are high during the wet season, the excess water in combination with nutrient-runoff in the Lake’s watershed creates conditions ripe for blue-green algae blooms in unnatural proportions that are generally detrimental to ecosystems.26 Further, when the Lake level reaches high levels, it becomes a flood risk and poses a safety hazard to local communities if a hurricane were to come along, and it is generally bad for the Lake’s ecology, as submerged plants do not get enough sunlight.27 Of course, south Florida communities also depend on underground aquifers south of the Lake for water supply purposes.28

The question arises as to when and where to send water during the wet season, considering all factors. A general solution is to get the water clean and send it south in accordance with the natural system.29 However, sending the water south requires sending it through the EAA, down through the Stormwater Treatment Areas (“STAs”) which are essentially man-made wetlands designed to filter excess nutrients out of the water, further down through Water Conservation Areas (“WCAs”), at which point the water will reach relevant Wildlife Management Areas (“WMAs”) and other conservation lands, down to Everglades National Park, and finally out to Florida Bay.30

These acronyms sound confusing, but the main takeaway is that this ecosystem is extremely micromanaged. The multifaceted pathway south, not as expansive or free flowing as it once was, gets saturated and full during the wet season based on standards set forth in regulation schedules, and at a certain point, historically, there has been nowhere for the Army Corp to send the additional Lake water except out through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, regardless of whether the Lake water will negatively impact salinity levels or damage the estuaries.31

These are somewhat complex issues. However, CERP projects involving land acquisition, additional reservoirs to store water, and additional STAs to clean and convey water are and have been underway.32 The Army Corp has worked extensively with the state, mainly through SFWMD to address these issues and enact CERP plans, of which there are over 50.33

Submerged tree in the above creek's basin

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Table of Citations

¹Lake Okeechobee Systems Operating Manual: LOSOM Facts and Information, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (2021).

²Flood Control, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

3-4Restoration Plan: CERP, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (2018).

5-6Lake Okeechobee, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

7The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, Michael Grunwald (2006).

Improved Land, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

Reclaim, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

10Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, South Florida Water Management District (2021); Focus on the St. Lucie River, South Florida Water Management District (1999); The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, supra.

11Life in an Estuary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2019).

12-14About Herbert Hoover Dike, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (2021).

15 Development in the Everglades, National Park Service (2015).

16About Herbert Hoover Dike, supra.

17Fisheating Creek - Habitat and Management, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (2021).

18Just the Facts: Lake Okeechobee Coastal Releases, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

19Lake Okeechobee… Fish, Floods, and Farms, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

20Everglades, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

21USACE Increases Lake Okeechobee Releases to Caloosahatchee, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (2021).

22Central and Southern Florida Project Comprehensive Review Study, South Florida Water Management District (1999).

23Lake O Discharges: Sugar Farmers Sue Army Corps over EAA Reservoir: Will it Delay Project?, Ed Killer, Treasure Coast Newspapers (August 27, 2021).

24SFWMD Prepared for Wet Season, South Florida Water Management District (2018); Dry Season and Drought Are Not the Same, Abbey Tyrna, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture (2021).

25District Remains Laser Focused on Sending Water South, South Florida Water Management District (2020).

26Addressing Blue-Green Algal Blooms, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

27Cyanobacteria in Florida Waters, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (2021).

28Florida’s Water Resources, Tatiana Borisova and Tara Wade, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture (2018).

29District Remains Laser Focused on Sending Water South, supra.

30Water Quality Improvement, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

31Statement: SFWMD Responds to Increased Releases from Lake Okeechobee, South Florida Water Management District (2021).

32-33Restoration Plan: CERP, supra.