Water levels high at Lake Okeechobee

Army Corps of Engineers discharging water, replacing decades-old culverts

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter , Ben Candea

NEAR BELLE GLADE, Fla. - High water levels at Lake Okeechobee prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to release water and replace decades-old culverts, which are points of vulnerability for a breach.

"It's just high for this time of year," said John Campbell with the Corps of Engineers.

When Local 10 visited Lake Okeechobee, water levels were just shy of 16 feet, higher than they were last October after Tropical Storm Isaac. With weeks of hurricane season yet to come, Campbell said they are discharging billions of gallons of water from the lake each day.

"Our concern is with the stability of the dike. There's no imminent threat of danger at the lake levels that we are at right now, but we are undertaking weekly inspections," he said. "If the lake were to rise to 16.5 feet, we would start inspecting the dike daily and what we are looking for his changes in condition and we want to detect small issues and mitigate them before they become big problems."

Rising lake levels put pressure on the earthen dike protecting the homes and farms nearby. Crews have already found two leaks -- not highly unusual for a dike made of dirt -- but enough to warrant weekly inspections.

Campbell said they also worry about the decades-old culverts, the corrugated metal pipes that feed water to local farmers.

"We see them as potential points of failure in a dike-failure scenario," he added.

The aging system is being updated with fortified, concrete structures.

"Certainly much more robust in its ability to withstand pressure of lake water up against it," said Campbell.

It will take about five years to complete the culvert upgrades, but Campbell said it's not guaranteed that the dike can sustain higher water levels in the future.

"The goal of doing the rehabilitation of the dike is primarily for public safety, to provide some degree of protection for the people that are near the dike, to reduce the risk of failure to such a degree that we don't think it will happen," he said. "It would be premature to say we're going -- definitely, for sure -- going to hold more water."

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