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Posted 10/15/2013

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By John H. Campbell

Demonstrations, inspections, diversions, operations…the staff at Jacksonville District’s South Florida Operations Office (SFOO) has dealt with it all this summer.

During normal operations, the staff is responsible for the Okeechobee Waterway, the recreation areas around the locks, maintenance on Herbert Hoover Dike, and numerous other tasks.  However, as the water rose on Lake Okeechobee this summer, SFOO staff had to adjust duties to accommodate other priorities, such as weekly inspections of the 80-year-old dike.

“It’s mission essential to do inspections,” said Steve Dunham, chief of the SFOO. “We do weekly inspections when the lake rises above 15.5, which means we’ve done it for nine weeks in a row.  If the lake level exceeds 16.5 feet, we’d have to do them daily.”

Dunham estimates it takes about 16-20 people to conduct the inspections. Dunham says other SFOO staffers have additional duties as part of the emergency response team if a significant problem is identified at the dike.

“We have three teams to deal with issues,” said Dunham. “The ground reaction team would move rock and equipment on the ground if a problem developed. A water response team has been trained to deploy a huge, inflatable plug to place in a breach location. An aerial support team would work with members of the Florida National Guard to use helicopters to deploy rock and other materials from the air if needed.”

The lake has been higher than normal for much of the year. The early arrival of the wet season prompted Jacksonville District water managers in May to begin releasing water from the lake in accordance with their water management plan, the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). With rainfall between April and July the heaviest since 1932, the district had to open the gates on the lake to maximize flows in order to stem the rise. 

The water management actions have been very controversial, due to impacts caused by releasing large amounts of freshwater into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries, which has upset the normal freshwater/saltwater mix in those bodies of water. As a result, several demonstrations and protests have been organized at various locations around south Florida, including the St. Lucie Lock near Stuart. 

“The crowds behaved themselves,” said Art Ruebenson, park ranger, following a demonstration at the lock on August 3. “They assembled at a nearby park, then came en masse to the picnic area for about an hour before dispersing.”

The water releases also drew the attention of multiple elected officials, including Florida Governor Rick Scott, who visited St. Lucie Lock August 20.

Despite all the activity surrounding Lake Okeechobee and the dike, SFOO staff continues to maintain focus on their core missions, including operation of the 152-mile Okeechobee Waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. The five locks in the waterway have been operational all year, although some restrictions were put in place at Ortona Lock near LaBelle to accommodate some urgent repairs.

“A collar that engages the motor had to be repaired,” said Rob Schnell, former SFOO assistant chief.  “The repair took a few weeks because we had to machine the part ourselves.”

Depending on weather, there’s no shortage of work to be done in the SFOO area of responsibility.

“We’ve got some trees to remove from the dike,” said Dunham.  “Additionally, we need to place additional armoring (large rocks) around certain sections of the shore which have eroded over time.”

caloosahatchee estuary Herbert Hoover Dike Jacksonville District Lake Okeechobee Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule LORS Okeechobee Waterway Ortona Lock South Florida Operations Office St. Lucie Estuary St. Lucie Lock U.S. Army Corps of Engineers USACE