Sequester leaves dam surrounding Florida’s largest freshwater lake in dire of need of repair

Katie Howland Contributor
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Florida Governor Rick Scott invited President Barack Obama to visit the sunshine state and see what the sequester has wrought on Tuesday, criticizing the administration’s “federal shortcomings.”

The administration’s failure to provide adequate funding for the crumbing Lake Okeechobee dike may endanger the area, Scott said.

“[O]ur state has seen investments in the Lake Okeechobee dike system decrease under your watch,” Scott said in an open letter to the president, according to the Miami Herald. “In 2013, you funded maintenance at $130 million, but your 2014 budget proposes a reduction $86 million. This funding reduction is astonishing considering the federal government has yet to deliver on its responsibility of supporting a dike system that can keep families safe while mitigating environmental impacts.”

The US Army Corps of Engineers classifies the Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover dike system — a levee 143 miles long and 30 feet high — as a class one dam, meaning it is “almost certain to fail under normal operations.” Peak hurricane season to Southern Florida is underway and Lake Okeechobee, the largest freshwater lake in the state, rises six times faster than the Corps can drain it.

Lake Okeechobee's dam (Photo:GettyImages)

Lake Okeechobee

The Corps’ efforts to drain the rain-swollen lake — which doubles as a water supply reservoir for the U.S. Sugar Corporation — also raised concerns about pollution seeping into nearby estuaries.

“The Corps must reevaluate its risk assessment to determine if recent repairs to the dike could provide additional flexibility within the existing lake schedule and reduce harmful discharges to our estuaries,” Scott said.

Much of the water flooding the estuaries is polluted with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the sugar companies, who pump runoff from their fertilized sugar fields into Lake Okeechobee after a heavy rain.  As of September 17, about 2.2 million pounds of nitrogen and 330,000 pounds of phosphorous have been dumped into local estuaries — around 10 times the maximum daily limit for the year, Mark Perry, Executive Director of the Florida Oceanographic Society told the Daily Caller.

Pollution from Lake Okeechobee crawling down Florida's coast (Photo:Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

Pollution from Lake Okeechobee crawling down Florida’s coast
(Photo:Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

Pollution turns Florida's clear water brown (photo:Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

Pollution turns Florida’s clear water brown
(photo:Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

The disruption of the ecosystem is not only harmful to local marine life, but humans as well. The pollution creates toxic algae blooms and bacteria, which causes health problems.

The Town of Sewall’s Commissioner, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, told the Daily Caller that people frequently contact her about health issues that arise from swimming in the Indian River and the ocean.

“Mothers with children that they had taken out where the inlet is, told me their little kids were getting rashes and diarrhea. The sandbar is off limits to the public now. It has too high bacteria levels… This is affecting over 500,000 people,” Lippisch said.

The pollution also affects local businesses, Lippisch said.  Nearly 26,800 jobs directly related to working the water ways bring in some $840 million dollars to the local economy. Paddle boat companies and charter fisheries have been forced to close their doors because it’s unsafe to go into the water. Since May, real estate companies have reported over 55 cases of people canceling their contracts to buy waterfront properties after seeing the pollution.

Polluted waters hurt coastal housing market (photo: Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

Polluted waters hurt Florida’s coastal housing market
(photo: Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch)

The sequester has had a negative impact on the dike’s water management, Lippisch said.

“Sequestration has definitely had an effect on what they are doing and not doing,” she said. “They need a water outlet south to take the pressure off the dike. It will affect some of the sugar lands, but wouldn’t you rather do that then have the whole thing break and thousands of people die?”

In March, House Republicans circulated an email that appeared to show that Obama administration took steps to ensure the sequester’s cuts were as painful as possible. 

“We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that ‘APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs,’” wrote a director of the Agricultural Department Animal and Plant Health Inspection in an email in Raleigh, North Carolina. “So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”

Florida Democrat Rep. Patrick Murphy and Florida Republican Rep. Trey Radel will deliver testimony on the issue on Thursday during a congressional hearing.

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Katie Howland