LAKE OKEECHOBEE — “Getting to the bottom of it” is exactly what engineer equipment operators are doing at an 8 feet wide toe-ditch in Martin County near Canal Point, just north of Pahokee.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does more than building infrastructure. More important, engineering equipment operators maintain the land at project construction sites along the shores of Lake Okeechobee by removing and cleaning up debris. This plays a pivotal role for dam safety operations. Paul Jacques, maintenance and quality assurance manager, explained: “Cleanup began a couple of months ago. It’s routine work.”
There is no timeline for expected completion. The toe-canal is a land drainage system centrally located on the Herbert Hoover Dike near Port Mayaca in Martin County, just north of Pahokee. Cleaning the toe-canal includes removing debris, tussocks, underbrush, passage bridge structures, muck and vegetation. “(The structures) are retaining water from its normal drainage. We are taking care of those impediments,” said Jacques.
“We need to keep the drainage so we can observe on the toe side for any type of seepage or boils, which is done more frequently as the water levels rise.” The cleanup starts at the beginning of the toe-canal around Spillway S-351 and spans an estimated 12 miles.
“Water flows in the canal east and west and, when it reaches a higher elevation, it causes flows to the south of the pump station toward Pahokee,” lead engineer equipment operator James Hart said. Hart supervises a small team of four engineers ensuring the excavation of materials.
“(With) heavy rains, water rises, when structures fall into the drainage, it causes a blockage creating a dam effect when the water should be free-flowing,” Hart said. Additionally, the toe-ditch, also referred to as the C-1, is stabilized with materials of pea gravel, filtered with sand and then capped off with a lime-rock base. Ultimately, the layers of material help to block any seepage and keep the toe-ditch clean. “Cleanup allows for release of water retention and to help with the flood control in Pahokee,” Hart said.
Additionally, the toe-canal is a habitat to different species of wildlife including fish, birds and alligators. At present, the toe-canal is experiencing the dry season, which started in late November. The wet season usually starts in April 2021.
A bright, yellow,excavator is used to dig deep to the bottom of the toe-canal. Operations begin as early as 8:30 a.m. Various items are dug out with the excavator or a skid-steer and then put aside for proper disposal.