Will Lake Okeechobee’s aging dike stand up to Irma? State says it’s at ‘low risk’

Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that the biggest risk to Lake Okeechobee and the aging Herbert Hoover dike is “too much rain” so state and federal officials continue to lower water levels in the lake and surrounding canals as Hurricane Irma is projected to dump up to a foot of rain into the Everglades.

“The canals are going to be as low as we can get them,” said Scott at a press conference in Hialeah Thursday. Water levels will continue to be lowered through Friday and the state “does not have major concerns” about the stability of the aging and vulnerable Herbert Hoover dike, he said, but “we will immediately advise if that changes.”

“The biggest risk right now would be if it just sat here and dumped rain,” Scott said. “Their concern is not the wind right now.”

Federal officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported Wednesday that if projected rainfall estimates remain at 8 to 10 inches and Irma douses the lake as a Category 3 hurricane, the region surrounding the dike will be at “low risk” for flooding.

The lake water levels are now at 13.6 feet and it has gotten to 18 or more feet “without anything happening,” Scott said, but they are “constantly doing inspections and will do more detailed inspections when it’s at 17 feet.”

For every foot of water that falls on the communities surrounding the lake, the lake will rise three feet over a period of weeks, said Laureen Borochaner, chief of engineering for the U.S. Army Corps during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

The corps started discharging water into estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee on Tuesday and will continue through Friday, she said. Preparations also include drawing down canals to levels lower than normal pre-storm readiness and discharging as much water as possible through all coastal structures.

She said the combination of wind and water could lead to some flooding in Clewiston, at the site of one of the construction projects there, but the corps has pre-positioned staff to monitor conditions after the storm passes.

“The overall amount of Lake Okeechobee is a low-risk condition,” Borochaner said, adding that the lake is at 13.5 feet, one foot lower than it was last year and within the 12.5 to 15.5 foot range. “We will continue to monitor storm forecasts.”

Despite the optimism, concerns remain.

“It can take a lot more water right now but the risk is they could get too much water,” Scott said. “So far, this could change, the storm is moving fast which means we won’t get the same sort of rain that Texas got.”

Borochaner said that if the storm arrives as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the conditions could become more threatening to the lake.

“It depends on how much precipitation falls in and around the lake,’’ said John Campbell, corps spokesperson.