Life Support

Life Support

The news for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades' lungs and kidneys, is mixed at best. But at last we understand what's at stake and how to heal the lake.

By Ted Williams/Photography by Katherine Wolkoff
Published: November-December 2011

Before this replumbing of the northern Everglades, summer rain had collected in wetlands and aquifers and, during all but the driest of months, had been doled out to the lake and a cleansing, 100-mile river of sawgrass and pickerelweed that metabolized phosphorus, filtered sediments, and delivered soft, sweet water to Florida Bay. Okeechobee's natural exhalations were as beneficial as its inhalations because they never lasted long and they allowed organic muck to dry, decompose, burn, and blow away. Insect larvae and succulent vegetation flourished in the shallows, providing food and cover for turtles, frogs, salamanders, alligators, wading birds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Then the insects would shuck their larval skins and take wing in vast clouds that sustained North America's energy-drained songbirds as they funneled through Florida on their way north and south. You can't have a healthy system if you flush and fill it like a toilet.

"The water district will tell you it dewatered the lake for the economy," says Gray. "Whose economy are we talking about? In winter the town of Okeechobee's population doubles to something like 70,000 due almost entirely to the influx of anglers. But last spring they couldn't even use the boat ramps [so severely did the district shrink the lake]." When the lake's fishery is healthy it annually contributes $203 million to Florida's economy.

In late May the district installed pumps to continue allocations for sugarcane irrigation, thereby further flouting not only the Endangered Species Act but the state rule that forbids it to let the lake's level fall below 11 feet for 80 days more than once in six years. "That's the power of the sugar people," says Reed. "They can still reach someone in Washington."


I needed to compare the condition of the whole watershed with what I'd seen from a Cessna 172 in 2001. Receiving no invitation from Governor Scott to fly me around in his private jet, I accepted one from his Palm Beach neighbor Gary Lickle, a board member of the Everglades Foundation. Lickle picked me up at the mouth of the Kissimmee River in his 900-pound Cubcrafters Carbon Cub floatplane, which can take off in less than three seconds and slow to 28 mph without stalling. There's room for one passenger--directly behind the pilot.

Lickle, who runs a trust company, grew up hunting and fishing, and now, as he says, hunts the sea in summer and the land in winter. "We all lately learned how important the Everglades are to our existence," he remarked. "We want to make sure all this is around for our kids and grandkids because it's so special." 

As we flew over the gutter that used to be the Kissimmee River I noticed a metal stick moving between my knees. "Is that how you fly this thing?" I inquired.

"Yes," he said. "Take over." With some trepidation I steered north, still following the straightjacket the Corps had forced the Kissimmee into, thereby destroying its magic along with the magic of its name, which it changed to "C-38." When the river had its way, all marshes within and well beyond its floodplain couldn't be drained because there was no downhill. With the advent of C-38, landowners over thousands of square miles cut canals, draining their wetlands into it. Perishing with the river were millions of fish, turtles, frogs, salamanders, alligators, snakes, mammals, and marsh-dependent birds.

My mood darkened as I flew north. But suddenly the natural river reappeared and with it all its old beauty, including the birds. Having paid the Corps $35 million to destroy the river, taxpayers have so far paid it $291 million to fix part of it. When that partial fix is completed they'll be out an estimated $980 million. The Corps had placed 16 miles of C-38 back in the original riverbed and blown up one of the five gated spillways with which it had vainly attempted to control flows. It will blow up another spillway and restore an additional six miles, leaving 30 miles of gutter.

One of the ways the district is attempting to heal the greater Everglades is with stormwater treatment areas (STAs)--giant filter marshes, frequently connected to reservoirs. Presently we swung out over the $75 million Lakeside STA, which will annually remove 19 tons of phosphorus. But STAs are expensive, and in big rain events water goes through so fast it doesn't get cleaned. To comply with the Clean Water Act the district must cut phosphorus input by 460 tons a year. If it depends on just STAs instead of other options, such as forcing best management practices on dairy farms, it can't possibly find the money it needs. As things stand now, everyone pays save polluters.

So slow and low were we flying when we reached the lake that I cheerfully relinquished the stick to Lickle. A half-mile swath of brown, withered cattails marked the area Don Fox had sprayed with herbicides. Cattails are native, but when water going to Lake Okeechobee carries more than 20 parts per billion of phosphorus they become invasive. The lake's inflow now carries 150 to 200 ppb, and as a result cattails and other nutrient-swilling plants are destroying natural diversity all the way to Florida Bay.

We seemed to hover with the ospreys. A manatee that had negotiated the entire St. Lucie canal sashayed over a shallow bar. Tire-sized nests tilapia had excavated with their tails gave wet and newly dry sections of marsh the appearance of having been saturation bombed by B-52s. I could ID most birds, see every turtle and alligator and many fish. I could even make out the rouge of pinhead-size apple snail eggs festooning plant stems.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Lake Okeechobie

Thank you for this great article. I actually feel
hopeful after reading it.

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