Want to Make Glades Communities Safe from Flooding? Build a Southern Spillway.

Several prominent Florida politicians have suggested that storing more water in Lake Okeechobee is the key to fixing our water management problems. But without an emergency spillway–as Californians learned last month–a bigger dike is only a bigger threat to the people living below it. Ultimately the idea comes from the sugar industry, which opposes any engineering to send water south–including a spillway–because safety is not what they care about. This time people saw through the smokescreen.

When Sen. David Simmons tried to derail Sen. Joe Negron’s plan to curb toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee, proposing a competing idea to simply build a bigger dike to store more water and send Washington the bill, groups that had backed everyone’s attacks against an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir seemed to have little appetite for Simmons’. Why? Partly his timing.

Just as Simmons filed his bill, news feeds filled up with images of 200,000 evacuees looking on as construction crews scrambled to stop the Oroville Dam from collapsing into the Feather River, north of Sacramento. It reminded South Floridians’ of their own uneasy coexistence with the rising waters of Lake Okeechobee, and the aging dike whose predecessor failed during a 1928 hurricane, killing more than 2,500 people.

In California the thundering 30-foot wall of water and rock that officials warned about never came. At Oroville, critical engineering features–spillways–ultimately held and saved downstream communities from a disaster of epic proportions. Lake Okeechobee’s dike doesn’t have a true spillway or any southern outlet to send high volumes of water when there’s an emergency, relying instead on canals to the east and west as relief valves. Even when the locks are wide-open, the lake drains slower than a storm can fill it. Simmons’ proposal wouldn’t change this; it wouldn’t reduce the danger. Instead it would push even more water against the dike, reminding people who live below it of the threat posed by every hurricane, or even a wet winter season like 2016.

The 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane still casts a shadow over glades communities

The Simmons Bill: Not A Serious Proposal

The Army Corps of Engineers says the ongoing repair work won’t be complete for eight years, and until then the dike’s failure risk hasn’t diminished much–only shifted to towns along its western edge. Simmons’ bill isn’t a serious proposal for multiple reasons: the federal government says it won’t pay for extra construction costs; the Corps says it won’t know for years whether the repaired dike can safely hold another inch of water; and ecologists say raising water levels will kill the lake.

But inadvertently, the Simmons bill and the Oroville Dam drew attention to the potential safety, engineering, and economic value of building a spillway into the Herbert Hoover Dike. Experts have long claimed a cost-benefit analysis would show that a spillway to the south would be the most cost-effective solution to provide responsible flood control and avoid harm to downstream estuaries. So why haven’t the Corps and SFWMD started planning a southern outlet? 

The Corps says it wants to, as soon as possible. But Gov. Scott’s appointees on the SFWMD have resisted. They’ve claimed that an outlet and storage south of the lake aren’t part of CERP (they are), that storage north of the lake is a substitute (the science, and logic, refute this), and that reprioritizing will stall progress (no one else agrees with this). It’s no coincidence that as soon as the planning begins, and the increased safety, improved freshwater flow, and better discharge reduction capacity of a spillway and dynamic reservoir solution are documented, the sugar industry’s control of South Florida’s water slips away.

Today sugar controls every drop of freshwater that reaches the EAA. The moment a spillway allows water to pass, the industry has to share this precious resource with 8 million Floridians, a national park, and a world heritage site.

In Oroville, a spillway helped protect thousands of people from catastrophic flooding. Here it could do the same. Or prevent toxic algae from poisoning millions. Or prevent pollution from destroying coastal economies. Or protect Miami’s water supply. Or recharge the Everglades. Or reverse the decline of Florida Bay. But right now, these choices don’t exist and nothing takes priority over maintaining ideal conditions for sugarcane. Negron’s plan could change that.