A Catch-22 For Water Managers Still Dealing With Hurricane Irma Rainfall

Oct 12, 2017

Excess water from Hurricane Irma is still making its way through Florida, exacerbating the significant water management challenges the state's faced this rainy season.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman John Campbell says heavy rains in June raised water levels statewide, and with Irma and other tropical systems dumping more water, it's been difficult to get the levels down.

Water storage areas are filled to capacity. Fall king tides are increasing the amount of water lapping at Florida's shores -- sometimes by as much as two or three feet.

And, Campbell says, successful restoration of the oxbows -- essentially, the bends -- in the Kissimmee River has slowed down the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee. The oxbows plus the immensity of South Florida's watershed, which stretches from the Orlando area to the Keys, mean it can take weeks or months for water to move from north to south.

"In some ways that's helpful because... the lake doesn't fill up as fast like it did a few years ago, when [the Kissimmee River] was just a straight canal," Campbell says. "But when those historic oxbows have been restored, it takes longer for the water to make its way through."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Jason Kirk address concerns about safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike in Clewison on Oct. 9, 2017.
Credit Peter Haden / WLRN

Lake Okeechobee is just now closing in on its maximum post-Irma level, which won't be known for certain until the lake crests. Campbell says the lake measured about 17.19 feet on Wednesday -- down very slightly since Tuesday, when it reached 17.20 feet, its highest level in over a decade.

Water levels are approaching the benchmark at which the Corps says erosion could threaten the structural integrity of the aging Herbert Hoover Dike. That benchmark is 18 feet.

"We’re continuing to release water," Campbell says. "We're releasing as much as we can both east and west -- as much as we can without causing flooding impacts downstream."

Read more: Rising Waters In Lake Okeechobee Trigger Concerns Of Dike Safety

He says the Corps is currently discharging four to five billion gallons of water per day from the lake, but about 10 billion gallons of water are flowing in daily -- meaning lake levels could continue to rise at a time when discharging water could worsen coastal flooding.

"Our concern for the dike is not going to be driven by a specific lake level," Campbell says. "Our concern is going to be driven by the conditions we actually see -- are we seeing any erosion or things of that nature."

Campbell says the Corps is inspecting the southern portion of the dike daily.

Dike restoration is currently expected to be complete by 2025. For that timeline to be moved up, Campbell says the Corps needs the Trump administration and Congress to authorize more funding. Currently, he says, the Corps spends between $50 million and $150 million of its dam budget -- 20 to 25 percent of its budget for all dams in the country -- on the Herbert Hoover Dike.