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Lake O dike gets $514 million in federal funding

By Staff | Jul 10, 2018

Fixing the water quality issues surrounding Lake Okeechobee is a decade-long process with many different parts and projects.

But one project just got a big boost in funding that will cut years off its timeline: repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike.

One of the reasons the Army Corps of Engineers so closely regulates the levels of Lake Okeechobee is the aging dike.

The dike has been in need of repairs for years, but the funding has been slow in arriving. But last week, a big boost from the federal government could speed up the needed repairs.

The Office of Management and Budget has allocated $514 million specifically for the dike repairs from a funding package passed by the House Appropriations Committee for disaster relief from 2017 hurricanes and wildfires.

With such a significant chunk of funding, the Army Corps is predicting the repairs can be completed by 2022, instead of 2025, said John Campbell, spokesman for the Corps.

“We’re publicly committing to finish in 2022,” Campbell said. “We have much greater confidence we can achieve that timeline.”

The Corps began repairs in 2001; a large chunk of funding came in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina. Already, the Corps has passed the $1 billion mark in dike repairs and estimates about $800 million is left to finish the job, Campbell said.

There are still a few additional funding sources coming into the Corps budget: $50 million from the state, and $162 million that President Donald Trump included in his 2019 budget requests. Both those sources, plus the $514 million, bring the Corps almost to the final figure needed to finish the repairs.

“Now we’ve got all this, that gets us very close to what we need, if not all,” Campbell said.

District 19 U.S. Representative Francis Rooney chalked up the extra funding to President Trump’s promise on the campaign trail to get the dike project on track. Trump said at a rally in Collier County in 2016 that he’d get more money for the dike.

And it’s time for the work to get done – Rooney said he’s been frustrated with what he sees as a lack of action from elected officials in southwest Florida to push for funding for water quality projects.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program was passed in 2000; although the dike is not technically part of CERP, Rooney said it’s been 18 years without many projects nearing completion.

“We have rocked along with nominal amounts of money to build the CERP and Hoover Dike,” Rooney said. “They’re dribbling out money here and there. Picayune Strand is one of the few that’s been done.”

The reservoir approved by Senate Bill 10 south of the lake will be a huge help, but the repairs to the dike is a “game changer,” he said. The Corps has said the dike is in danger of being undermined if it gets above 15.5 feet, so fixing it could allow more water storage in the lake.

But Campbell said a study will have to be done to make sure that’s the best solution: the Corps is beginning discussions about undertaking a study concurrently with the dike repairs so that a new like regulation schedule can be prepared and ready to be implemented when the dike is finished.

“We think it has the opportunity to give water managers more flexibility in where we send water,” he said.

But, he couldn’t say that fixing the dike meant more water will be held in the lake: the environmental pros and cons of that move would have to be incorporated into the study.

Rooney takes the additional funds as a win for southwest Florida as it battles harmful algae blooms for the third year in a row. He credits some of the funding win from the invitations members of Congress have accepted from him: over the past year, he’s brought down several key congressional figures, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to tour the Everglades and CERP projects first-hand. During McCarthy’s visit in May 2017, he said there was “ample place for infrastructure investment” in the Everglades.

“I think I’ve worked hard to put in place relationships, and bring them down, show them the Everglades and make it come alive to them,” Rooney said. “The thing here is, we’ve all been together on message. Environmental groups, officials, water management, have been a team. Our unison has helped us succeed.”