Will dike repairs mean higher lake levels?

OKEECHOBEE — Will completion of the dike repairs mean higher lake levels?

Repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike will be complete by 2022, according to the report given by Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Sept. 21 meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon.

“Basically we’re going to have everything we need in terms of funding to get this done,” said Col. Kelly.

Thanks to the additional money, the dike repairs will be completed by 2022, he said.

“The bottom line is we are on track. We are full steam ahead.

“I am trying to hire as many people as I can to get this done, which is an interesting challenge in itself,” Col. Kelly said.

“We have about a month to get all of the schedule on paper and blocked in,” he said. “It’s a rare position for the corps to be in to get in front of the money.

“Our challenge is to get all of the stakeholders on board to move at a pace that we normally don’t,” said Col. Kelly.

“We have enlisted our sister districts from around the country,” he explained. “We are bringing in the corps teams.

“The message is loud and clear: Get it done,” he said.

Frank Mann, who represents Lee County on the coalition, asked whether the repairs will mean changes to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, which sets the target lake level from a low of 12.5 feet to a high of 15.5 feet.

“I have seen local stories in Fort Myers media — sometimes they don’t get it all right,” said Mr. Mann.

He explained that the news stories on the coast have stated that when the dike is repaired, the lake elevation will be higher.

“The very simple answer is this system and all of this effort reduces the risk, but it absolutely does not raise the elevation,” said Col. Kelly. “It does afford us the opportunity to redo the operating schedule.”

Col. Kelly said that once the work on the dike is complete, the dike will be given a new dam safety rating.

“We will have a completed risk analysis that will allow us to change how we regulate the lake,” he said.

“This by no means was intended to raise the level of the lake. It was all done to reduce risk because of the vulnerability of the dike,” he said.

At the same time the dike repairs are underway, the corps will re-evaluate the lake regulation schedule, he said. Public scoping will start in January.

Col. Kelly said it is very unusual for the corps to have a new schedule ready at the same time a project is completed.

“There are fairly well-informed interest groups that see the restoring of the Herbert Hoover Dike as a means of storing more water,” said Mr. Mann. “I hear you saying that was not the purpose ever.”

“It is hard to see all of this construction being done and coming out at the other end and being told ‘What do you mean I am not getting more?’ … We are putting all of this money into it to reduce the level of risk,” said Col. Kirk.

During the public comment period, Ed Fielding said he was a member of the original Lake Okeechobee Watershed Study.

He said his concern is that the models used to determine the lake schedule are “tied to the past.” The weather patterns have changed, he said.

“We are totally inadequately prepared for the new storm levels,” he said. “Had we been hit by Harvey, the dike would have broken.”

A warmer Earth makes nastier storms, he said.

“Climate change has already made the sea level rise,” he continued.

Hurricane Florence is an immediate example of what these supercharged storms are going to become, Mr. Fielding said.

Every degree the air warms, it holds 4 percent more water, he said.

Warmer air and water also make storms more intense.

“Some place in the U.S. has been drenched by a hurricane four years in a row,” he said. Storms are happening more frequently and more intensely.

“We need to look at models that more nearly reflect the current intensity of storms,” Mr. Fielding said. “We have been tied to the past. It is not going to work.”

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