Hurricane Matthew: Southeast Florida Vulnerable

Within hours, Hurricane Matthew will smash its Category 4 chaos on the narrow, flat peninsula that is the State of Florida. And here I sit, safe from this destructive powerhouse about which many in my area remain blissfully unaware; writing from my porch in tiny West Bend, WI. Despite this distance, what I know from research is that, while the evacuation of humans from the highest-risk areas may prove effective in saving lives, in every other way Florida cannot possibly be ready for this.

Category 4 is massive. It has been over 100 years since a Category 4 hurricane hit Florida.

Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas
Hurricane Matthew Slams Into Bahamas

And that was the ONLY time.

The deadliest hurricane on record happened in Galveston, TX, in 1900. That hurricane? Category 4.  To add perspective, Hurricane Katrina — infamous for its horrific explosion on the City of New Orleans — was Category 3.

The only Category 5 hurricane to hit the USA was Andrew, in 1992. Fortunately for Florida, Andrew did not dump loads of rain. Why? Because the dikes holding back Lake Okeechobee can handle heavy winds and fallen trees. Excessive amounts of rainfall? Not so much.

According to Lloyds Emerging Risk Team, Southest Florida’s Lake Okeechobee – roughly the size of Rhode Island —  is the second most hurricane-vulnerable place in the United States, right behind New Orleans. Eventually, the Lake’s dikes can contain only so much water.

Currently, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Lake Okeechobee’s depth sits at near-record averages of about 15.5 feet:

“Okeechobee water levels continue at almost record highs after an extremely wet summer and fall. The current water level on Lake Okeechobee as of September 25, 2016 is 15.66 ft. NGVD, just over a foot higher than last year. The lake level has increased almost a foot within the last month.”

Hurricane Matthew will drop at least 7″ of rain into the Lake, causing a rise of perhaps 2-feet. It is possible Matthew will pour 10″ or more — and that could create as much as a 3-foot rise.

The lowest of Okeechobees dikes rests at slightly higher than 18 feet — uncomfortably low with Hurricane Matthew approaching, according John Campbell of the Army Corp of Engineers.

Parts of the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee start to become vulnerable at 17.5 feet, Campbell noted. 

“Certainly our concern all year is what happens if we get a lot of precipitation and the lake level rises,” Campbell said. “A (rise over 17 feet) would take us to areas where historically we’ve had some challenges and it’s certainly something we’d like to avoid.”

An unfortunate byproduct of Hurricane Matthew may be that the historic HABs (Harmful Algae Blooms) of 2016, which wiped out most of Southeast Florida’s Gold Coast tourist season, will repeat themselves in 2017. Hundreds of millions in tourist dollars will again be at stake.

For area businesses who rely on tourist trade, this loss of income would clearly be devastating.

That said, if Matthew causes a breech to a significant piece of the Lake Okeechobee dike — and this possibility is at present razor-thin close — Southeast Florida will be looking at a disaster reminiscent to what we saw in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina.

In two days, we’ll know.

 

Net Result of Farm Runoff? Algae Blooms.

As 2016 has meandered through its Spring and Summer months, various parts of the USA have demonstrated once again the all-too-familiar relationship between Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB) and agriculture.

The consistent and major culprit: farm runoff. This impressive study (2014) conducted by a consortium of State of Ohio Agencies comprehensively presents the impact of runoff as it exports excessive levels of phosphorus into waterways which eventually flow into lakes like Lake Erie (OH & MI), or Lake Okeechobee (FL), or Utah Lake (UT), or Pyramid Lake (CA).

A costly source of revenue
A costly source of revenue

It has been suggested to me, by various primary and secondary expert sources in WI and OH, that farm runoff from unregulated farms contributes 60% or more of the phosphorus load that creates HABs. I have thus far been given no quantifiable reason to question that estimate. In fact, I am inclined to move the figure higher still.

In an upcoming article I will discuss the disproportionate amount of manure a dairy farm with as few as 500 cows can create, in comparison with a city of people. Suffice to say, if I told you one cow on an unregulated farm can generate 1000 times more waste than one person living in a municipality with a satisfactory waste treatment system — well, that number is probably conservative.

And shocking.

 

CA algae blooms explained in Door County WI

Over the past few days. I have been struggling to find a clear explanation for the HAB (Harmful Algae Boom) that has overtaken Silverwood Lake, which is fed by the Mojave River, in Southeast CA. Then I happened upon a part-time resident of Door County, WI — one of the Midwest’s premier vacation spots– who was lamenting to me about the well-known, on-again-off-again HAB issues this beautiful area has experienced.

“We are told that our children can swim in the water,” she said, “and then … they can’t.”

Her frustration was palpable, and in it I found my answer: sometimes HAB can be explained when ALL elements work in balance to affect a Lake.

Animals are at particular risk with HAB
Animals are at particular risk with HAB

Silverwood Lake is unusual in that it is deep. Almost 170 feet at its deepest. But it is NOT unusual in its vulnerability to the primary factors which explain HAB in water. Always at the forefront is a tributary or land runoff super-loaded with nutrients — primarily phosphorus — pouring into a slow-moving body of water.

In Dour County, WI, that body of water is the Bay of Green Bay.

In Utah, there is Lake Utah.

In Florida there is Lake Okeechobee.

In CA, among lakes, there is Silverwood Lake.

And so it goes ….

To reduce HAB with solutions that have a chance at long-term potential, we must control what we can control — and go back to the basics of sound land management.

 

Lake Okeechobee … a thumbnail explanation for HAB crisis.

No doubt about it … Florida is in crisis-mode as it contends with the horrible side-effects of Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). Unfortunately, the crisis was all to predictable, after nearly unprecedented torrential winter rains filled Lake Okeechobee to threateningly high levels — and resulted in mass-draining of the polluted (see: toxic) lake.

ABC News reported on July 4th that Florida’s Gold Coast is suffering from a nearly worst-ever tourist turnout. Hundreds of millions of tourist dollars have already been lost, and more economic fallout will follow.

As far back as 1999, concerns over phosphorus loading from agriculture were being presented by the State of Florida Environmental Protection Agency. In 2011, even more clarity regarding phosphorus runoff into Lake Okeechobee, largely from area agriculture, was brought to light:

Water quality in the lake has degraded over time due to high phosphorus loadings resulting from man-induced hydrologic and land use modifications over the past 60 years. The total phosphorus concentrations that currently exist in the lake are in excess of the amount needed for a healthy ecosystem. The in-lake total phosphorus concentrations have doubled over the last 50 years ….

Gold Coast Algae Bloom
Gold Coast Algae Bloom

With all the aforementioned heavy rain, in February, 2016, concerns over flooding resulted in the Army Corp of Engineers decision to drain Lake of Okeechobee at a rate of 70,000 gallons per second. And eventually all this dirty water flows to the tourist areas … bringing HABs with it.

A February 26, 2016 article by ThinkProgress.org was downright prophetic in predicting the “What Happens Next” stemming from this inevitable, if ill-fated, decision.

The simple fact is this: too many nutrients in water are a bad thing. They present a problem that spreads with runoff from land, which flows into waterways and then moves to other areas. Florida’s Gold Coast may be the latest, and most glaring example. But it is far from the only one.