Image of Lake Okeechobee Map 229

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The Changing Everglades

Learn how the quest for farmland and a dependable water supply and flood protection forever changed the Everglades.

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Lake Okeechobee and Phosphorous

Learn why Lake Okeechobee is polluted by contaminants in stormwater runoff that flows into the lake.

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Everglades Stormwater Treatment Areas

Learn how phosphorous and other pollutants are removed from the water through a natural process utilizing aquatic plants in the Everglades Stormwater Treatment Areas.

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Learn About Your Watershed

Lake Okeechobee Watershed

Image of Sun sets on the 730 square mile Lake Okeechobee.
Sun sets on the 730 square mile Lake Okeechobee. Peter Dutton

Watershed Stats

Size of Basin: 1,023 square miles of lake draining more than 4,600 square miles

Major Towns: Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Okeechobee, and Pahokee

Counties:
Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, Hendry, and Glades Counties

Major Water Features:
Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee River, and Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough

Overview

Image of Lake Okeechobee is the most visible Florida feature from space. Prior to flood control efforts and development in the watershed, water flow unimpeded from the north through Okeechobee and south through the Everglades.
Lake Okeechobee is the most visible Florida feature from space. Prior to flood control efforts and development in the watershed, water flow unimpeded from the north through Okeechobee and south through the Everglades. NASA

Lake Okeechobee, whose name is derived from the Seminole Indian words meaning "big water," is a large, shallow, eutrophic lake that lies 30 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean and 60 miles east of the Gulf of Mexico in the south-central Florida peninsula. It is the second largest freshwater lake wholly within the United States, second only to Lake Michigan and not including Alaska. Lake Okeechobee was formed out of a bedrock depression about 6,000 years ago when ocean waters receded, and the Florida peninsula emerged. The original lake was probably saline but over time was freshened by rainfall. It has an average depth of 8.6 feet and a maximum storage capacity of 1.05 trillion gallons. The water level in the lake has varied between 9.2 feet and over 18 feet above mean sea level during the last two decades.

Lake Okeechobee lies at the center of the interconnected Everglades ecosystem, which includes the Kissimmee River to the north, and the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) and Everglades National Park (ENP) to the south. The lake also forms part of the navigable Okeechobee Waterway connecting the east and west coasts of Florida via the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River.

Lake Okeechobee and its associated wetlands provide critical habitat for numerous plants and animals, including a number of threatened and endangered species. Migratory birds and waterfowl use the lake's littoral zone and adjacent wetlands as a resting and feeding area along the Atlantic flyway. The lake is a major economic and recreational resource, supporting a multimillion-dollar commercial fishery, a famous sport fishery, and an important waterfowl-hunting area.

Image of Port Mayaca lock and dam on the east side of Okeechobee is part of the the Okeechobee Waterway, a man-made waterway stretching from Fort Myers on the west coast to Stuart on the east coast of Florida. It was finished in 1937 to provide a water route across Florida, allowing boats to pass east–west across the state rather than travelling the long route around the southern end of the state.
Port Mayaca lock and dam on the east side of Okeechobee is part of the the Okeechobee Waterway, a man-made waterway stretching from Fort Myers on the west coast to Stuart on the east coast of Florida. It was finished in 1937 to provide a water route across Florida, allowing boats to pass east–west across the state rather than travelling the long route around the southern end of the state. US Army Corps of Engineers

Lake Okeechobee is a potable (Class I) water source that directly supplies five communities around the lake. Releases of water from the lake into downstream canals recharge the surficial aquifer in most of Palm Beach County and the Biscayne aquifer farther south, indirectly supplying water to the five million residents of southeastern Florida. The lake also serves as a backup water supply for communities along the Caloosahatchee River, and it supplies irrigation water for agriculture as well as water storage for regional flood control.

Human Impacts

Historically, water from the Kissimmee River and Fisheating Creek slowly flowed into Lake Okeechobee and exited unimpeded from the lake southward into the Everglades through small tributaries and broad sheetflow during the rainy season. Prior to the 20th century, long periods of flooding and hurricanes made most of south Florida inhospitable to development. To open land for development, Hamilton Disston led an effort in 1882 to dredge canals between the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, and between Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. The latter provided Lake Okeechobee's first outlet to salt water (the Gulf of Mexico) via the Caloosahatchee River.

In 1926 and 1928, two major hurricanes generated storm surges in Lake Okeechobee that killed more than 2,400 people. To prevent such devastation from recurring, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) to construct the Herbert Hoover Dike, an earthen levee that still surrounds the lake's perimeter.

Image of Following hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 the US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized by Congress to construct a levee along 68 miles of the south shore and 16 miles along the north shore of the lake.
Following hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 the US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized by Congress to construct a levee along 68 miles of the south shore and 16 miles along the north shore of the lake.

In 1947, two back-to-back hurricanes again flooded the region. In response, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Flood Control Project in 1948. It became a massive flood management system whose activities included raising the height of the Hoover Dike, extending the dike completely around Lake Okeechobee, and leading Congress to further authorize the channelization of the Kissimmee River for additional flood control in 1954. The channelization of the Kissimmee River began in 1961 and was completed 10 years later. The 103-mile-long, meandering river was replaced by the 56-mile-long C-38 Canal, eliminating the seasonal flooding of the river's floodplain, which averaged about two miles in width during the wet season.

The rapid delivery of stormwater by the massive Central and South Florida Project has channeled excessive agricultural pollutants into the lake.


Agricultural activities surrounding the lake are the dominant land use in the Lake Okeechobee watershed and the main land use category contributing stormwater pollutants. The rapid delivery of stormwater by the massive C&SF Project has channeled excessive agricultural pollutants into the lake, ranging from phosphorus and coliform bacteria from ranch and dairy operations in the north, to nitrogen and pesticides from historical back-pumping of row crops and sugarcane in the south.

Image of A poster heralds the completion of the levee. Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1948 authorizing the first phase of the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, a plan to provide water control and reduce flood damage. The dike system today consists of 143 miles of levee with 19 culverts, hurricane gates and other water control structures.
A poster heralds the completion of the levee. Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1948 authorizing the first phase of the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, a plan to provide water control and reduce flood damage. The dike system today consists of 143 miles of levee with 19 culverts, hurricane gates and other water control structures. © SJRWMD

Depending on location and seasonal rainfall or drought, the lake receives varying amounts of nutrients, bacteria, pesticides, toxic materials, salts, and dissolved organic chemicals. Of these pollutants, phosphorus has had the greatest impact. Loads of total phosphorus to the lake nearly tripled between the early 1970s and mid-1980s. At the same time, phosphorus concentrations increased from below 40 to over 100 parts per billion.

Phosphorus enrichment has been exacerbated by regional flood control activities. The increase in phosphorus has led to widespread blue-green algae blooms (one covering about 100 square miles) and at least one major fish kill. The algal blooms have contributed to the accumulation of phosphorus-rich sediments over 198,000 acres of the lake bottom. This mud, which has a volume of approximately 270 million cubic yards, contains more than 33,000 tons of phosphorus. High water has reduced light penetration to the lake bottom, killing off submerged grass beds that would otherwise have taken up some excess phosphorus.

In recognition of these impacts, DEP, SFWMD, USACOE, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), and local governmental, scientific, educational, and citizen organizations are working to develop strategies for protecting and restoring water quality and quantity in the Lake Okeechobee watershed.


Interesting Facts:

  • Commercial agriculture is the major industry and land use in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, occupying almost 50 percent of the greater drainage basin.
  • Citrus production occurs throughout the region; more than 337,000 acres were planted in citrus (oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit) in 1997-98.
  • Cattle ranching and dairy farming are also extremely important and are generally concentrated on the northern and northwestern side of the lake. In 1999, the region contained approximately 468,000 head of beef cattle and 45,600 dairy cows.
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