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Herbert Hoover Dam rehab stirs up concerns over Lake Okeechobee ecosystem

Posted at 7:27 PM, Nov 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-01 09:21:01-05

CLEWISTON, Fla. — Lake Okeechobee is seeing the final stages of the Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation project.

So, Fox 4 set out to answer a question - is it going to hurt the underwater vegetation and fish population?

The dike is a 143-mile earthen dam that surrounds the lake for flood control. It has been undergoing rehabilitation since 2005 and is almost finished.

Improvements include new seepage barriers and strengthened embankments allowing the lake to hold more water.

However, the prospect of a higher water level has raised concerns among some, including Ramon Iglesias, Hendry County Commissioner, and manager of Roland Martin Marina.

“It's going to be able to handle the capacity of the water, but the health of the lake cannot handle it,” says Iglesias, pointing to the diminishing underwater vegetation in Lake Okeechobee.

With less than 2,500 acres of submerged vegetation remaining, he says keeping more water in the lake could impede the photosynthesis process, resulting in further losses, and those losses could affect the fish population.

To get more insight into these concerns, Fox 4 spoke with Barry Rosen, an expert at FGCU's Water School.

Rosen highlights the interconnected relationship between underwater vegetation and the fish population. “They need the vegetation for their young, for protection, and it's also a food source,” explains Rosen.

While it’s important to regulate water levels, Rosen says it can be challenging to control them in such a vast lake.

“The capacity to move water in such a large lake is so limited. So, all you can do is your best to optimize it and come up with plans that the operators of the lake can try to implement,” he adds.

Timothy D. Willadsen, Project Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, reassures that the project's aim isn't to dramatically raise the lake level beyond historical norms.

"I don't see this as a 'hey, we can raise the lake all the way to elevation twenty when historically we've never seen anything higher than elevation eighteen," says Willadsen.

The final stages of the project involve updating the water management plan, and Willadsen says they’re taking into account its impact on the lake's ecosystem.

"One of the things that we're doing is upgrading how we monitor the water and how it flows through the embankment," assures Willadsen.