Tom had always admired Lake Okeechobee from satellite imagery. So, as we made our way from Orlando to Palm City, Florida, we had to stop to see it. We had quite a view out our front door for a spell.
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About Lake Okeechobee
Lake Okeechobee means “big water” in the Seminole Indian language. Locals refer to it as “The Lake”, “Florida’s Inland Sea”, or “The Big O”. It is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida. It covers 730 square miles or roughly half the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Although it is Florida’s largest freshwater lake, it only has an average depth of 2.7m (8ft 10 inches) and has a 30-meter dike all around the lake. This allows the lake level to rise and fall without consequence to the surrounding towns.
Why Is Lake Okeechobee Here?
The cause for this dike was the catastrophic results of several hurricanes in the first half of the 20th century. The Okeechobee Flood Control District in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) constructed the dike, channels, gates, and levees around the lake to control the flooding.
Lake Okeechobee Pollution
While a feat of engineering, the lake has a controversial environmental spotlight on it. In the 2000s, thousands of truckloads of toxic mud were removed from the lake’s floor, found to contain arsenic and other pesticides brought in from the agricultural and urban development in the lake’s watershed.
In 2013, heavy rains in central Florida resulted in high runoff into the lake. This caused rising lake levels which forced the CoE to release large volumes of polluted water from the lake through the St. Lucie River estuary to the east and the Caloosahatchee River estuary to the west. Thus the normal mix of fresh and saltwater in those estuaries was replaced by a flood of polluted freshwater resulting in ecological damage.
The CoE has been forced to continue the practice. As a result, they pump billions of gallons of water out of the lake to avoid jeopardizing the integrity of the Hoover dike holding back the water from flooding the surrounding populated areas. Sugar plantations, farms, cattle ranches, and mining operations have been pumping polluted water from their flooded fields into the lake. This results in pollution problems for everyone downstream all the way to the Everglades.
While the South Florida Water Management District has ongoing efforts to clean up the lake, it still has a long way to go.
Lake Okeechobee National Scenic Trail
A well-maintained paved pathway runs along the majority of the 110-mile perimeter of the dike. Tom and I biked for several miles of this trail after lunch, which provided a unique vantage point of the lake and surrounding areas.
Travel Stage: Our RV Travels in Florida continue between Palm City and Orlando
Date: January 13, 2016
Summary: After years of looking at the Lake Okeechobee from satellite imagery, we finally saw it in person.
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