Corps Looks at Expediting Dike Rehab

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A couple of weeks ago, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane told the other mayors of municipalities in Lee County – who were gathered to discuss solutions to our area’s issues with water quality – that a possible short-term solution would be to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite work on the aging Herbert Hoover dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee so that more water could be held in the lake rather than being released down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This week, we took part in a teleconference with John Campbell, Public Affairs Specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District and Tim Willadsen, project manager for the dike rehabilitation project.

“The overhaul of this dike is one of the biggest projects that the United States government has ever taken on,” Willadsen began. “Since 2007, we’ve spent $550 million in the construction of a 22-mile cutoff wall and replacement of water control structures, with a total expected cost of around $1.5 billion by the time we’re done in 2025.”

Campbell explained the history of the dike, on which construction began in 1930 following the loss of 3,000 lives due to hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 that caused the lake to overflow and flood the land to the south.

“In a nutshell, the dike was not built to the standards we use today,” he said. “There is no emergency overflow capability built in.”

Willadsen added that ‘containment is the key’, especially in relation to large storm events.

“Lake Okeechobee encompasses some 730 square miles, with 5,600 square miles of drainage basin,” he said. “The average depth of the lake is shallow – 9 feet – so that means 1 foot of rainfall equals a ¾ foot rise in the lake.”

Tim went over some of the problems with the dike – including internal erosion through the surrounding embankment, soil erosion and overwash.

“This has led to the dike being classified as Level One – meaning it is one of the country’s most at-risk for imminent failure,” he said. “We have recently completed a draft summary of a dam safety modification report that changes our approach to fixing the dike from a ‘reach approach’ to a ‘system-wide approach’.”

“The draft summary and an associated draft environmental impact statement will be made available to the public before the end of the year,” Willadsen continued. “The draft reports contain alternative solutions that outline a path forward toward completing ongoing rehabilitation of the dike. The reports represent the culmination of a three-year effort that resulted in the most comprehensive look ever at the risk posed by the dike and solutions to the issues that have caused concern for several years.”

The plans call for projects that will cost about $400 million and include 24.5 miles of cutoff walls along the lake’s western edge – from Lake Harbor to Moore Haven. This is in addition to the 22 miles of cutoff wall already installed along the eastern edge of the lake, with a 6.6-mile expansion scheduled for completion by 2020.

Campbell explained that – if approved – construction would begin in 2019 and take 5-7 years to complete.

“This is because we have go through a multi-year funding mechanism to get the money appropriated,” he said. “It takes a minimum of 2 years for projects like these to go through the federal budget cycle, though in the past they’ve pretty much given us whatever we’ve asked for so we are asking them to expedite this.”

Once the draft summary is made available, the public will have 60 days to make comment. In addition, the Corps is planning public meetings for Jan. 26-28 in Canal Point, Clewiston, and Okeechobee. The report is expected to be finalized by next summer.

At the end of the teleconference, Campbell opened the discussion for questions. We asked about Ruane’s comments and when the dike might be rehabilitated enough for the Corps to consider reopening the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS), which was last revised in 2008.

“We try to look at LORS every 10 years,” Campbell said. “Though we are not expecting a revised LORS to be implemented until 2020, we are looking at doing an updated risk evaluation study that would be required before we could determine whether or not we could hold more water in the lake.”

For more information on Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation, visit the
Jacksonville District website at bit.ly/USACEdike

Keri Hendry Weeg