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Guest opinon: Update on Lake Okeechobee and the Herbert Hoover Dike
June 8, 2018

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The rainy season has begun early this year in Southwest Florida, a stark reminder that it is more important than ever to complete the reinforcement of the Herbert Hoover Dike as expeditiously as possible. Unfortunately, even before Subtropical Storm Alberto, the level of the lake was at 14 feet - 3 feet above normal for this time of the year. These levels are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and are closely monitored to protect the structural integrity of the dike and the safety of the surrounding communities.

The Herbert Hoover Dike was originally constructed between 1932 and 1938 after massive loss of life due to flooding caused by hurricanes. It was expanded to its current size in 1960 and now encompasses 143 miles. The dike has become structurally defective in certain areas and repairs to reinforce the structure have been underway since 2001. They are projected to be finished towards the end of this decade and every year that can be expedited is a potentially lifesaving step. Thus far the federal government has exclusively funded these repairs; however, $50 million each in 2018 and 2019 has been appropriated by the State of Florida to help speed up completion of the work.

Reducing the number and volume of discharges from the lake into the Caloosahatchee River is another critical reason for completing the construction as soon as possible. The adjacent estuaries and Pine Island Sound can accommodate reasonable volumes of water, less than 1000 cfs, but when the lake level nears 14 or 15 feet, massive volumes are discharged into the river, reaching several thousand cfs. After Hurricane Irma, discharges as high as 12,000 cfs were released.

Our tourism based economy is inextricably linked to the marine environment and the health of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed. Clean water is the foundation of a healthy economy in Southwest Florida. There is a $2 trillion economic impact spread across 164 cities and 16 counties in Southwest and Southeast Florida, and more than 55 percent of the real estate value in the entire state is directly affected.

I have been working with all relevant committees of jurisdiction in Congress and federal agencies for both Herbert Hoover Dike repairs and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Projects (CERP) that are imperative to our community. In addition to working with my colleagues in Congress, last week I met with high-level White House officials regarding increased funding for the dike and Everglades. For FY 2019, federal funding for the dike has been set at an all-time high of $96 million, a $14 million increase over FY 2018, which itself was the most we had ever received. Furthermore, we are close to an agreement to secure another $66 million from a special dam repair fund which can be added to the $96 million to significantly speed up completion.

Alongside the dike repairs, we are working hard to increase funding for the A-2 Reservoir, south of Lake Okeechobee, and to complete the 68 projects currently authorized by CERP. The appropriations process is ongoing, and I am optimistic that we can make great progress towards obtaining the funds to improve our water quality.

Accelerating repair of the dike is, simply, insurance: sooner or later a big storm will hit so it is best to reduce the time during which we are at risk. We need to pay less now, like an insurance premium, to hedge a future risk. Let's double the annual investment in repairing the HHD and put this catastrophic risk away.

- Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 19th congressional district. He is the Vice-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. He previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

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