The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Lake Okeechobee


From accidentally formed lakes like the Salton Sea, to ancient pluvial remnants like the Great Salt Lake, and even dried up ones, like Owens Lake, the CLUI often takes deep dives into lakes in the USA, with one eye on the past, and another on the future. In this focus we look at Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida—one of the wettest lakes in the country.  

map of Florida

CLUI photo

LAKE OKEECHOBEE IS THE TERRESTRIAL plumbing fixture at the center of the engineered former marshscape that is southern Florida. Its name comes from local native words meaning Big Water, apt for Okeechobee, since it is the second largest natural freshwater lake in the lower 48 states (Lake Michigan, the only Great Lake entirely within the USA, being the largest), though calling Lake Okeechobee natural refers only to its original form, and the fact that it was not created by a dam, like most of the bigger lakes in the country. 

The lake is at the fulcrum between ebb and flow, which is often turbulent, given Florida’s starkly dry and dramatically wet seasons. Its main issue is having too much water, and not being able to get rid of it fast enough, or in the right way. The Okeechobee Hurricane in 1928 killed at least 2,500 people, in one of the worst disasters of the 20th century, mostly by floods spilling out of the lake, overtopping the insufficient levees that had been built by early developers. This prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to built a better wall, known as the Herbert Hoover Dike, around more of the lake. After more hurricanes in 1947, the dike grew further, and is now a 143-milelong ring around the lake, 40 feet tall, and pierced with numerous gates, culverts, and locks, to let water in and out—but mostly out. 

Six primary canals take water away from the lake, including the St. Lucie Canal, which goes east and connects to the Atlantic Coast, and the Caloosahatchee Canal, which heads west and drains into the Gulf at Fort Myers. When water is released in dry months, to make space for the coming floods from the wet months, the water, rich with nutrients from agriculture, has produced algae blooms and anaerobic conditions, harming recreation and wildlife along downstream rivers and estuaries. A few years ago a toxic algae bloom covered more than 90% of the lake itself. 

Even more significantly, the dike interrupts the flow through the river of grass south of the lake, the source of freshwater for the remaining Everglades, some of which is now a national park. The land immediately south of the lake was drained and divided, like more than 50% of the original Everglades, but in this case was turned into a massively productive agricultural area, dominated by the sugar industry. While an $8 billion multi-pronged project to restore flow to the Everglades was approved in 2000, its fruits are proving slow to sow and reap. The project sits largely stagnant, within the intensely engineered flat hydrology of southern Florida, an area facing all kinds of problems, as much of it is so close to the level of rising seas. 

CLUI photo

CLUI photo
The C-12 control structure, one of more than a couple of dozen gates and locks in the dike around Lake Okeechobee. This one, north of Belle Glade, is undergoing maintenance, with water temporarily being piped around it. CLUI photo

Big Sugar in the Everglades Agricultural Area 

The former sawgrass marshland around the southern end of Lake Okeechobee was turning into cropland in the early 1900s, as part of the overall draining of the swamps. But in the 1930s, with the new dike being built around the lake, the U.S. Sugar Company was formed by the industrialist Charles Stewart Mott, backed by resources from General Motors, and began its spread of sugarcane into the region. Cane was processed in two of the company’s mills, and raw sugar was sent to refineries closer to cities to be turned into granular sugar. 

CLUI photo

CLUI photo
U.S. Sugar’s plant in Clewiston. For decades U.S. Sugar was the largest sugar producer in the country. CLUI photo

After Cuba’s revolution in 1959, the supply of Cuban sugarcane was cut off, and domestic production took off. Four large mills were built here, including one that was hurriedly transplanted from Louisiana in 1960 by the Fanjul family, who lost their sugar cane empire when they were forced out of Cuba. The Fanjul’s company, named Florida Crystals, expanded rapidly, and surpassed U.S. Sugar’s output by the 1990s. Today four plants, two owned by Florida Crystals, one by U.S. Sugar, and the Glades Mill, operated by a regional co-op, produce more than half of the cane sugar in the USA, from around 500,000 acres of sugarcane in what became known as the Everglades Agricultural Area. Parts of the area resemble the old colonial sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean, transplanted here, then ramped up to an industrial scale. ♦