The $1.5 billion dollar project took 18 years. Col. James Booth, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Jacksonville District, said it is impressive that the massive project came in three years ahead of schedule and $300,000 under budget.
“The goal of the project is to protect human life,” said Booth. In 2004, after Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath left New Orleans flooded, public attention increased for the other projects on the USACE most at risk dams list. The Herbert Hoover Dike, an earthen berm that surrounds Lake Okeechobee, was at the top of the list.
Booth said some USACE staffers have spent most or all of their career on the HHD Rehabilitation project. He said the State of Florida helped speed the project along by contributing $100 million in state funds in 2018.
The 143-mile dike is about 30 feet high and was originally constructed from materials dug at the site (creating the rim canals outside the dike on the north end of the lake and inside the dike on the south end), At higher lake levels, water pressure caused water to seep through the earth dike creating the risk the dike could breach.
Before they could start work to improve the dike, engineers first had to take core samples to determine the composition of the berm. The dike rehabilitation included 56 miles of cutoff walls: 21.5 miles between Port Mayaca to Belle Glade; 6.4 miles between Belle Glade and Lake Harbor; and, 28.3 miles from Lake Harbor to north of Lakeport. The concrete cutoff walls are two to three feet thick and about 70 feet tall. They start just below the surface of the top of the dike and go through the dike into the earth.
The rehabilitation also included demolition of culverts that were built in the 1930s and 1960s and construction of 28 new water control structures in their place.
“The Herbert Hoover Dike has never been in better shape than it is right now,” said Booth. He said those who live in the shadow of the dike are “safer and more protected than they ever have been.”
“This is an enormous achievement,” said Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Conner. He said completing the rehabilitation under budget and ahead of time “shows what reliable funding and strong partnerships can do together.”
He said the federal government has a responsibility to maintain and improve infrastructure. “We’re making investments at record levels on the federal level,” he said. The state is also making investments, he added.
“We’re in it for the longterm. We’ve got a lot of projects to do,” said Conner.
South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chair Chauncey Goss said he hoped the rehabilitation will “help the lakeside communities sleep better at night.” He said those downstream of Lake O will also sleep better, since the HHD can now hold water at higher levels, which reduces the need for harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
“This lake is the definition of my back yard,” said Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, who chairs the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon. “It’s a damn long dam,” he added. He said he has watched the work on the dike over the past 18 years, including big “machines looking like giant dinosaurs ripping up the earth.”
During Hurricane Irma, with work underway on culvert replacements, there were fears the storm winds would push the lake water up over the temporary cofferdams on the south end. Fortunately, the winds pushed the water north instead. Karson said he checked on the lake during the storm to see water level on the south end dropped to 11 feet above sea level while water on the north was pushed up to 19 feet.
While Turner said he is pleased the dike is in better shape to withstand the onslaught of hurricanes, he is concerned the stronger dike will be linked to a push to keep the lake level higher. Keep the lake too high on a regular basis, will destroy the lake’s ecology, he explained.
Clewiston Mayor James Pittman said the most massive project in South Florida history finishing under budget and under time was “nothing short of a miracle.” He credited the teamwork of local, state and federal officials and agencies. “Citizens around the lake can live in safety form the dike breaking,” he said.
South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles said the dike improvements will help economic development south of the lake because the risk of flooding has been reduced.
“This structure projects tens of thousands of people living in its shadow,” said U.S. Sugar Vice President for Strategic Environmental Affairs Michael Ellis. He said U.S. Sugar has supported the HHD Rehabilitation project and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) from the start. Local farmers have “stepped up in a big way,” to do their part, he continued, “actively using Best Management Practices (BMPs) to clean every drop of water before it moves south. He said through the Agricultural Area Tax generates millions of dollars each year to fund the storm water treatment areas (STAs) to clean water.
Thanks to the farmers’ help, 95% of water in the Everglades meets restoration standards and 100% of the water in Everglades National Park meets the standards, he added.
The farmers are doing their part to protect the environment while at the same time growing food that millions of Americans depend on, he said.