Lake Okeechobee & EAA Reservoir

The “liquid heart” of the Everglades watershed, Lake Okeechobee is where the southward flow of water was interrupted. The massive reservoir will store fresh water from Okeechobee, so it can be cleaned and sent through the River of Grass.

A bird's eye view of Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee.

The Port Mayaca Lock on Lake Okeechobee allows excess water to be sent eastward into the St. Lucie River.

Lake Okeechobee covers more than 700 square miles, yet its maximum depth is just 12 feet. The liquid heart of the Everglades watershed, the lake would spill over its southern banks during the wet season, initiating a “sheet flow” of fresh water up to 60 miles wide that created the “River of Grass” that eventually flowed through the Everglades to Florida Bay. Starting in the 1920s, dikes were built along the southern end of the lake for flood control and to drain land for agriculture. Over the next 50 years, the flow of water to the Everglades was shut off piecemeal. The excess water is now redirected east and west through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers—starving the Everglades of fresh water and inundating estuaries on both coasts. To make matters worse, in the 1990s, scientists discovered that agriculture north of the lake had created a large phosphorus sediment load, which led to huge blooms of dangerous algae in the lake and in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

A map of the Everglades Watershed with Lake Okeechobee marked with an orange circle
A spiral sea shell sits in the middle of a person's hand
A boat glides through Lake Okeechobee

By law, water sent south into Everglades National Park must be clean, so managers can’t just open the spigot from Lake Okeechobee. The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, currently under construction, will be an above-ground reservoir covering more than 16 square miles and able to hold 78.2 billion gallons of water. But because water will move through it, the reservoir will hold much more over the course of a year. Water from the reservoir will be filtered through four stormwater treatment areas (STAs)—man-made wetlands that remove nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from the water and store it in plant life and soils. The EAA Reservoir is an important but incremental step. Achieving the full potential of Everglades restoration will require at least four times as much water storage and STA acreage. 

The lock system for Lake Okeechobee

What you will find here...

...and what is at stake of being lost.

A line drawing of a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Hail to the Chief

A fish that needs no introduction, the largemouth bass is the largest of the sunfish family, the most popular game fish in North America, and the state fish of Florida. It’s easily distinguishable from other bass due to its jaw extending beyond the rear edge of the eye as well as the unique dip between its dorsal fins. The largemouth’s primary habitat is lakes and rivers near vegetation and structures, but it can also be found in schools out in deeper water. A carnivorous fish, the adult largemouth consumes small fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, and even turtle hatchlings.

A line drawing of Needle Rush (Juncus roemerianus)

Needle Rush (Juncus roemerianus)

Don’t Miss the Point

While at first glance this coastal plant may appear leafless, the pointy “stems” are, in fact, very tightly wound leaves, which can grow up to four feet tall. Native to the east and west coasts of Florida and the Keys, it’s typically found in coastal areas and brackish tidal marshes as it’s highly tolerant of salt wind and salt spray. This characteristic makes it an ideal candidate for salt-marsh restoration. It is also used by birds for nesting and as a food source.

A line drawing of a Florida Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis)

Florida Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis)

The Perils of Being a Fussy Eater

Feeding exclusively on apple snails, which are found only in Florida, the Snail Kite is indeed aptly named. Originally found in the Everglades to just south of Tallahassee, the Snail Kite has become somewhat nomadic, moving from wetland to wetland in search of snails, as drainage and development has altered its primary habitat. Considered endangered in 1967, the population today is stable but is still vulnerable to any stresses caused by reduction of its food source.

A deer stands amid reeds in a wetland
Ripple Effect:

Cleaner water is also beneficial for the habitat surrounding the lake.

Three people fishing off a small boat on a green ocean

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