February 22, 2017
Sheets of rain splattered against the windshield as John Martin and I sped across Florida. It was altogether fitting that we should arrive at Lake Okeechobee in such a storm. Most of Florida’s biggest and most complicated environmental problems stem from agricultural wastes washing into Lake “O”.
For thousands of years water flowed from the Orlando area south into Lake Okeechobee, then on through the Everglades to be filtered and cleansed as it seeped south toward the Florida Keys.
All this started to change with Florida’s first land boom in the 1920’s. Salesmen would travel by train through the mid-West extolling the Sunshine State as America’s new home for year-round farming, “Why the soil is so rich you don’t even have to fertilize it. No sirree just throw down some seeds and watch ‘em grow.” Never mind that most of the lots were underwater and would still have to be “reclaimed” from the Everglades.
The way they reclaimed farmland was to build an earthen dike to hold back Lake “O”‘s waters from seeping south. The results were spectacular at first. Farm hands planted row upon row of sugarcane, citrus and vegetables in the rich, mucky black soil.
But by the summer of 1926 heavy rains had already raised the lake to the edge of the dike when the great Miami Hurricane came barreling through. A wall of water smashed through the dike trapping hundreds of people in their beds as the lake surged through their doors and windows. In the end the Great Miami Hurricane killed 400 people and left 40,000 homeless.
After the storm, Herbert Hoover stepped in and built a new 243-mile dam that encircled the entire lake. But in 1928 the San Felipe–Okeechobee Hurricane smashed a 21-mile long hole through the dike and a 15-foot high wall of water surged down through the five towns we had just driven through. In scenes premoniscient of Hurricane Katrina people had to cut through their roofs and use the bodies of bloated dead cows as life rafts while fighting off swarms of angry, large water moccasins. The San Felipe-Okeechobee hurricane was the second most deadly hurricane in history drowning more people than Katrina.
Today Lake “O’’s problems have become even more complex. Now they are affecting water quality on both the East and West Coasts of Florida.
When we were staying in Boca Grande the red tide was so bad one night that you could tell how many people were in a house simply by hearing them cough. Many elderly people had to cut their vacation short because of respiratory problems that can become fatal when aggravated by red tide aerosols. And for the past few years Florida’s East Coast has been covered with a gross green algal mats from Stuart Florida to Palm Beach. And all these problems have their start in lake “O”.
Runoff from cattle ranches flows into the lake from the north and sugarcane fertilizers flows into the lake from the south where they mix in a petri dish the size of Delaware.
Then heavy rainfall like what we were experiencing puts pressure on the dam so officials divert the fetid waters down the St Lucie River to Florida’s east coast and down the Caloosahatchee River to Florida’s west coast. There the potent mix of nitrates and phosphates in the freshwater fertilize the saltwater dinoflagellates creating toxic red tides and putrid green algae blooms that stretch for miles.
We wondered if we would see this when we reached Mar-a-Lago. Little did we know that we would be occupied with more pressing concerns.