Brief History of Lake Okeechobee

Geological surveys indicate that Lake Okeechobee was formed about 6,000 years ago, when ocean waters receded and water was left standing in a shallow depression in what today is known as the state of Florida. The expansive lake that resulted from this process was named Okeechobee, which means "big water" in the language of the Seminole Tribe. The lake served as a direct source of water to the Everglades by way of numerous small tributaries passing out of the lake’s southern end.

Changes in south Florida have had severe impacts on Lake Okeechobee. In the 1890s, Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia businessman and real estate developer, constructed a canal connecting Lake Okeechobee with Lake Hicpochee, the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River, providing the lake’s first outlet to tidewater via the Caloosahatchee River. In the early 1900s, the Everglades Drainage District constructed several other canals that impacted Lake Okeechobee. These canals provided a slow, continuous drainage from Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.  The goal was to drain the northern Everglades for agricultural purposes and to prevent the crops from flooding.

Small towns arose in this region, some very close to the lake. A small muck levee was constructed along the southern shore of the lake to protect those towns and farms. But then, in the 1920s, two major hurricanes struck south Florida. One of them generated a storm surge in the lake that flooded coastal areas and hundreds of acres to the south, resulting in approximately 2,000 deaths. To prevent this kind of devastation from reoccurring, Florida turned to Congress for help. Congress directed the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to lead efforts to prevent future tragedies of that scale. Building the Herbert Hoover Dike Exit DEP Disclaimer, an earthen levee that still surrounds the lake's perimeter, was one of the first features of the USACE’s solution. Resulting from the system of canals and levees built by the Corps, today all discharges into and out of the lake are artificially controlled, except Fisheating Creek.

At the same time the dike and water control structures were completed, the USACE developed a water level management tool, called a regulation schedule, that is cooperatively administered by the USACE and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). High water levels can lead to declines in the lake's submerged plant beds and in the juvenile ages classes of important sport fish (such as bass). When lake levels are particularly high, large flood control discharges of freshwater are sent though canals to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, impacting the estuarine organisms.

After the construction of the canals, much of the land around Lake Okeechobee was converted to agricultural use. To the north, dairy farms and beef cattle ranching became the major land uses, while in the south, sugar cane and vegetable farming increased rapidly. The land use changes were associated with large increases in the rate of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) inputs to the lake, leading to water quality challenges.

The Plans

In 2000, the Florida State legislature passed the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act. Through the legislation, the SFWMD, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS), and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have developed and implemented strategies to restore the lake and its watershed.

Announced in October 2005, Lake Okeechobee & Estuary Recovery (LOER) plan is a response to the current conditions of Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries after the 2004-2005 hurricanes. This action plan has been developed to help restore the ecological health of these water bodies, building on the strategies identified in the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan. 

Underscoring the state's commitment to Greater Everglades Ecosystem restoration, in 2007 the Florida Legislature  expanded the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act to strengthen protection for the Northern Everglades by restoring and preserving the Lake Okeechobee watershed and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

  • Read an extended timeline of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Restoration.
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Last reviewed: February 11, 2009