Work to fix Lake Okeechobee’s troubled dike remains a national priority, the Army Corps of Engineers said in a letter to Palm Beach County officials worried about the flooding risk and the slow pace of construction.
The 70-year-old, earthen dike is vulnerable to erosion and considered one of the nation’s most at risk of failing.
The 143-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike remains in the midst of a decades-long rehab, but that’s not moving fast enough according to Palm Beach County commissioners, who in August called for expedited efforts.
In response, the Army Corps sent county officials a letter detailing improvement efforts and maintaining that the corps is “committed to the public safety of the residents of Palm Beach County as well as the state of Florida.”
“The Corps has actively been taking the steps necessary to reduce the risks of (a) breach or failure at Herbert Hoover Dike and Lake Okeechobee,” wrote Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, the Army Corps’ deputy district commander for South Florida.
The steps the Army Corps has taken to improve the lake’s dike include last fall finishing the five-year installation of a 21-mile stretch of a reinforcing wall built through the middle of the most vulnerable section of the dike, between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade.
Part of a reinforcing berm was built between Port Mayaca and Sand Cut.
The corps is also replacing the dike's 32 culverts, which could take until 2018.
A study aimed at identifying what further improvements are needed was to be completed in 2014, but now may take until 2015.
The Army Corps contends it has invested nearly $730 million in Lake Okeechobee dike improvements since 2001.
The Lake Okeechobee dike gets more annual funding than any other dikes in the country that are undergoing upgrades, averaging between 30 and 40 percent of the Army Corps entire dike improvement budget, according to Greco.
The Lake Okeechobee dike’s safety concerns have been getting renewed public attention after a rainier-than-usual summer raised lake water levels and flooding concerns.
To ease the strain on the dike, the Army Corps since May has been dumping hundreds of billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and out to sea, with damaging environmental consequences to the estuaries.
The deluge of lake discharges into the rivers pollutes coastal waterways, killing fishing grounds and spawning toxic algae blooms that have made some areas unsafe for swimming.
Drier weather and continued lake discharges helped lake levels drop slightly this week, down to 15.63 feet above sea level on Wednesday. The Army Corps tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet.
Even as Florida’s rainy season begins to fade away, hurricane season lasts through November. Lake Okeechobee discharges could continue through the end of the year.
“As conditions change … we will monitor and be able to make adjustments,” Greco said in a media briefing Wednesday.
While coastal communities to the north object to the flood-control dumping of Lake Okeechobee water, years of Lake Okeechobee dike repair delays continue to frustrate Palm Beach County officials.
Last month, County Commissioner Shelley Vana told an Army Corps representative: “If our people ever drown, I will never stop blaming you.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun