With Lake Okeechobee two feet too high and still rising after a month of heavy rain and far-off Tropical Storm Dorian posing a potential but highly uncertain threat, federal engineers on Thursday cranked opened the flood gates on the big lake, spilling tens of billions of gallons of polluted water down rivers on both coasts.
The “maximized” releases are intended to protect public safety, making room for flood waters and easing pressure on the aging, vulnerable Herbert Hoover Dike. The lake remained more than a foot below the danger zone where risks of leaks, erosion or even potentially catastrophic breaches to the massive levee begin to sharply rise. But Dorian or some other future tropical deluge could quickly fill that gap as South Florida enters the peak of the hurricane season.
“It is imperative that we take additional measures to control the rise of the lake to ensure we have enough storage capacity,’’ said Col. Alan Dodd, commander of the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers’ Jacksonville District.
But stepped-up dumping flow spells an expanding environmental disaster for once-rich estuaries on both sides of the state: the Caloosahatchee River on the southwest coast and the St. Lucie River on the southeast. Sprawling black plumes already foul both rivers, a brew produced by local storm runoff but worsened by weeks of steadily increasing dumping of lake water laced with farm and yard nutrients like phosphorous, nitrogen, animal waste and silt.