Lake Okeechobee was in trouble before last year's hurricanes churned up a thick layer of pollution from the bottom, turning the water the color of day-old coffee. But the worst may be yet to come.
LAKE OKECHOBEE, Fla. Lake Okeechobee was in trouble before last year's hurricanes churned up a thick layer of pollution from the bottom, turning the water the color of day-old coffee. But the worst may be yet to come.
"What you're going to find this summer is this lake is going to turn just as green and just as slimy as anything you've seen in a science fiction movie," Mayor J.P. Sasser said, sitting in a cottage that overlooks the murky lake. "When that starts, no one will get on that water."
Environmentalist are expecting an onslaught of toxic algae, which blooms from the pollution spreading through the lake. Besides threatening Okeechobee's fish and plants and nearby water supplies, the algae jeopardizes an $8.4 billion project to restore the Everglades.
Okeechobee, the nation's second-largest freshwater lake, is critical to the health of the Everglades and is known as Florida's "liquid heart."
"Everybody is looking at this with some degree of horror," said Paul Gray, the science coordinator for Audubon's Lake Okeechobee program. "You realize you probably can't save the lake this spring."
Lake Okeechobee sits in the middle of the Everglades project, which aims to restore the natural water flow from the Kissimmee chain of lakes in central Florida to Florida Bay, at the peninsula's southern tip.
Water managers use pumping stations and canals to mimic nature, but they have nowhere to put the extra 5 1/2 feet of water that the hurricanes dumped on Okeechobee in August and September. They say dumping so much fresh water could shock the fragile ecosystems.
With the next hurricane season weeks away, state officials don't expect to see improvement until next spring.
"We don't know how bad it's going to get before it starts getting better," Gray said.
Lake Okeechobee felt all four hurricanes that swept over Florida. It took direct hits from Frances and Jeanne, a near hit from Charley, which drenched the Kissimmee basin that drains into the lake, and was soaked again by the remnants of Ivan.
Winds at least 79 mph and devastating storm surges left the shoreline littered with carcasses of alligators, fish and birds.
Now, the prospect of toxic algae is drawing alarming comparisons to an ecological disaster at central Florida's Lake Apopka, which succumbed to similar problems caused by a 1940s hurricane. It still hasn't recovered and is undergoing a costly restoration.
The size of Lake Okeechobee could help it rebound more successfully. The lake covers 730 square miles, second in size only to Lake Michigan within the contiguous United States.
"It's a lot more resilient, but that doesn't mean it can forever withstand everything that's been tossed it," said Susan Gray, the director of the Lake Okeechobee division of the South Florida Water Management District.
At the Pahokee marina, a pier normally full of fishermen has been deserted for months. The few dozen boats that would typically take advantage of a breezy spring day have disappeared.
State lawmakers are trying to set aside an extra $25 million this year to help Okeechobee rebound from the hurricanes. Those plans can't come soon enough for Pahokee and other communities struggling to make their own recovery.
Much like the lake it borders, Pahokee became downtrodden years before last year's storms made everything worse. The local economy was built up by small family farms, but most sold out to large sugar companies decades ago. When those companies mechanized harvesting, Pahokee's workers lost their livelihoods and the economy never recovered.
Sasser, the mayor, believes the hurricanes could allow the city to try again. The storms tore apart neighborhoods of trailer parks and dismantled the marina, which town officials hope to make a centerpiece of their rebuilt community.
Sasser envisions restaurants, boat and bicycle rental shops and other new businesses supported by tourists. But those tourists won't come if the lake keeps turning shades of brown and green.
"The whole thing hinges on the health of the lake," he said. "I think it's been used like a toilet long enough. We all just want to take the next step forward."
Source: Associated Press