OKEECHOBEE — If the level of Lake Okeechobee is low next year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission will be ready to take advantage of the opportunity to remove muck and improve the habitat on Lake Okeechobee.
At the Aug. 8 meeting of the Lake Okeechobee Aquatic Plant Management Interagency Task Force Alyssa Jordan of FWC Aquatic Plant Restoration said FWC has been working on several projects which will be ready to start if the lake level falls to the level that makes it possible to do muck removal.
“If we don’t get any storms, if we just get average rainfall, the lake could be pretty low next year,” said Ms. Jordan.
Paul Gray of Florida Audubon said similar projects have been done in the past when the lake experienced droughts.
• Indian Prairie Scrape Project: This project would remove approximately 126 acres of noxious aquatic vegetation and associated muck from the lake bottom, just southwest of Indian Prairie Canal. The muck is 6-to-13 inches in depth in this area and vegetation is primarily thick cattail and willow. FWC estimates approximately 156,000 cubic yards of material will be removed and deposited on the Indian Prairie Canal levee spoil site. This project area was once a slough and the plant and muck removal would restore the water to its natural sand bottom and allow water to be able to move to the interior marsh, thus improving water quality in the area. The project will also increase the abundance and diversity of native emergent submersed plant communities and associated fish, bird, wildlife species. For this project, lake levels need to be below 11 feet to begin using heavy equipment. Permits have been obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Department of Historical Resources. Estimated cost is $610,000.
• First Point Connector Scrape Project: This project would remove approximately 197 acres of noxious aquatic vegetation and associated muck from the lake bottom just northeast of the Peace Canal. The muck is 7-to-11 inches deep. Vegetation is primarily cattail and willow. FWC estimates 260,000 cubic yards of material would be removed and deposited on the Yankee Point disposal spoil site. The project area was once part of Tin House Slough, and this plant and muck removal would restore the area to its natural sand bottom and allow water to move to the interior marsh. A similar project in 2008 removed vegetation and muck in an adjacent site and showed immediate improvements. Connecting this new project area with the 2008 muck removal site. Permits have been obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Department of Historical Resources. Estimated cost is $1,148,000 to $1,518,000 depending on the route access.
• Pearce Canal Berm Removal: Hydrological conditions within Tin House and across the Northwest Marsh were fragmented when a canal was constructed by private entities during the development of Buckhead Ridge. This canal, known as the Pearce Canal, was constructed to provide lake access for the community of Buckhead Ridge. The canal serves as a discharge canal for SFWMD pumping Station S-127, constructed in 1965. Spoil material from the original canal dredging was placed parallel to the canal on the eastern bank, creating a barrier to wind, wave energy and water movement through the marsh. The hydraulic isolation of 500 acres of marsh northeast of Pearce Canal, combined with years of increased nutrient loading, have led to acceleration of organic sediment deposition. The project would entail removing spoil berm material and associated aquatic plants which extend approximately 5,750 feet to the littoral edge. Based on a study done in 2013, the estimated total fill to be removed above an elevation of 10 feet (above sea level) would be 24,379 cubic yards. All of the material would be spoil material and the natural lake bottom would not be disturbed. Part of the spoil material would be hauled to an existing corps spoil area at Yankee Point across the Herbert Hoover Dam. The remaining material would be used to construct a habitat bird island. The island would be built to an elevation of 17 feet above sea level with a footprint base of approximately 1.5 acres and a flat top. For work on this project to start, the lake level would need to be below 10 feet to get the heavy equipment on the lake bottom. FWC has applied for permits from the corps and FDEP. A permit has been obtained from the Department of Historical Resources. Estimated cost of the project is $250,000.
• Corps Island Re-Shaping: In the late 1990s, a ridge of organic sediment had formed a berm within the northwest marsh of Lake Okeechobee. In 2001, during a drought, that ridge was removed using heavy equipment and the material was deposited in six locations to make spoil islands. These islands have been managed through the establishment of trees and shrubs to serve as centers of habitat diversity within the wetland. Corps Island is the one closest to Indian Prairie Canal and is approximately 3 acres in size. It has a high center dome and steep sides. This project would reshape the island to make it more suitable for planting native vegetation and establishment of a functional habitat. Lake levels would need to be below 12.5 feet to get the heavy equipment on the lake bottom. New permits are not needed since all work will be done within the originally permitted spoil island footprint. Estimated cost is $55,000 to $80,000.
• Northwest Marsh Berm Removal: This project is located in the northwest marsh of Lake Okeechobee. Due to multiple years of high water on the lake, an organic berm began to grow. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma ripped up cattail, other emergency plants and deposited material at the lakeward edge of cattail wall. This newly formed organic berm, if allowed to continue to grow, would lead to a hydrological disconnect between the open water of the lake and the inner marsh. The proposed project would eliminate a 280-acre berm and create a 70-acre opening in front of the cattail wall. A series of cuts and flow ways will be pushed or dozed through the berm and spread thin along the bottom to better disperse the materials or hauled off the lake if conditions are dry enough. The size of this project may depend on funding. The lake level will have to be below 11 feet for this project to begin using heavy tracked land equipment. Permits have been obtained from the corps, FDEP and Department of Historical Resource. Estimated cost for this project is unknown at this time.