Lake Okeechobee: How the Florida’s largest lake has transformed since the 1940s

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Water is the lifeblood of Southwest Florida. It’s the heartbeat of our economy, the soul of our ecosystem, and the reason many of us live here.

As we consider where our water issues are today, we’ll take a look back at how we got here.

Lake Okeechobee translates to “big water” in the Hitchiti Indian language and is the largest freshwater lake in Florida. It is the second-largest freshwater lake wholly within the United States.

Many species of wildlife, fish, and fowl have made the body of water their home.

But what used to be described as clear with “clean sand” has a very different look today.

To better understand where we are now, Eva Velez and Lt. Col. Todd Polk with the Army Corps of Engineers joined us at the Herbert Hoover Dike.

“When the Central Florida Project was authorized by Congress in the 40s, the perspectives were different,” Velez explained.

Polk added, “When we look at the evolution is looking at the population growth in Florida and South Florida specifically, right, I think in the 1950s, around two and a half million, and you’re over 21 million today.”

A video titled “Waters of Destiny” from the state archives of Florida dates back to the 1950s and shows how the area used to flood.

Rains inundated lowlands of Central and Southern Florida, flooding the rich soils, destroying crops, ruining homes, businesses, and roads and wreaking havoc.

So the plan to protect people, property, and farmlands began.

An excerpt from “Waters of Destiny” said, “Remove it in a hurry. Bring it in when you need it. A large order for any one spot. But here we’re talking about some 15,000 square miles an area twice the size of new jersey. Something had to be done and something was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the mission of planning and designing a complete project for flood control throughout the district … This monster had to be controlled by bigger levees and by a bigger canals that would give it bigger outlets to the sea.”

The project was a massive undertaking. At the time, the project was one of the biggest earthmoving jobs since the digging of the Panama canal.

And the work continues today with the building of new reservoirs and trying to restore Florida’s environment.

Lt. Col. Polk said, “The engineers back in the 40s and 50s; It wasn’t their goal to create a disruption of flow to the Everglades and starve, starve water choke it to Florida Bay, or, or, you know, mass amounts to this to the coasts.”

Those are the unintended consequences, and still today, billions of dollars worth of work is underway to protect Florida’s most precious resources.

“We have to continue looking forward.” Velez said.”You know, climate change is a big challenge in the future. And we’ll have to continue to make those changes over time and how that evolution as well.”

All while learning from the past while preparing for the future.

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