From: Brian Skoloff, Associated Press
Published May 24, 2007 12:00 AM

Drought Lets Officials Remove Muck at Florida's Lake Okeechobee To Restore Habitat

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- State water and wildlife managers are taking advantage of an unprecedented drought by removing life-choking muck along Lake Okeechobee's shoreline.


The 500,000 cubic yards of rotted, dead plant life and sediment -- enough to fill Dolphin Stadium from the field to its highest seat -- will be trucked from the lake starting Thursday.


Its removal over several months will return the bottom of the lake along its southwest shoreline to a more natural sandy base and create clearer water and better habitat for plants and wildlife.


Lake Okeechobee is a backup drinking water source for millions in South Florida and the lifeblood of the Everglades. It has dropped to a near record low after a months-long drought experts say is the worst the region has ever seen.


While the drought has led to severe water restrictions across the state, it has presented an opportunity to clean portions of the highly polluted lake, as water levels have dropped enough to expose typically submerged shoreline.


The muck, which has accumulated over the years, is choking life from the lake's shore. It prevents sunlight from reaching the bottom, keeps fish from laying eggs and inhibits plant growth.


Portions of shoreline will soon see the return of wading birds, fish and native plants long smothered by the blanket of muck, which has become more of a dry, soil-like material after baking in the sun, said Don Fox, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.


He said fish breeding attempts have been futile.


"When they try to lay eggs in this muck, they just sink down," Fox said. "There's low oxygen content and they just die."


The initial removal is part of an $11.5 million project that will eventually take out about 3.8 million cubic yards of muck along up to 15 miles of shoreline, he said. It is the largest ever such project at the 730-square-mile body of water, the second-largest natural freshwater lake in the contiguous United States, behind Lake Michigan.


Much of the lake's problems lie in its high phosphorous levels, which cause pollution in estuaries and in the Everglades. The majority of the life-killing nutrient is buried in muck at the lake's center -- about 50,000 tons of it over 300 square miles, experts say.


The project beginning Thursday will remove some of the phosphorous, but state water managers are still devising a plan to get out the rest of it.


"The big benefit will be getting that material off the lake bottom so we can get the plant life back and restore the fisheries habitat," said Susan Gray, deputy executive director of watershed management for the South Florida Water Management District, which is also working on the project. "But when you get the vegetation growing back in the lake, you also get an improved ability for the lake to absorb phosphorous."


Audubon of Florida scientist Paul Gray called the effort a step in the right direction, but noted, "it's not going to save the lake."


"It's still a really good thing," Gray said. "But if the lake would fluctuate normally, we wouldn't have to do this. Mother Nature would fix it."


Lake Okeechobee has suffered from years of dikes, dams and diversions intended for flood control. Its main water source, the Kissimmee River, starting to the north near Orlando, was diverted in the 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers with a 22-mile canal.


The move flushed massive amounts of water and pollution from urban runoff and agriculture into the lake. The corps is working to restore the river.


Source: Associated Press


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