Last week, Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray and I ventured out on Lake Okeechobee. Our crew included Congressman Tom Rooney, Kevin Powers of the SFWMD Governing Board and his kids Sarah and Paul, and Don Fox of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
There we were amidst blue skies, a floating garden of white and yellow water lilies, and endangered Everglade Snail Kites gliding twenty feet from the boat.
“If you were to rate the Lake today, what would you say it is?” Kevin asked Don.
We saw Great Blue Herons, White Ibises, Belted Kingfishers, Purple Gallinules, and a variety of coots and ducks. No visible alligators, but we did see a few large splashes as gators avoided the oncoming boats.
When people hear “Lake Okeechobee”, they generally think of an unending pool of dirty water stretching for miles beyond the horizon. This is not quite the truth. About one-third of Lake Okeechobee is shallow marsh around its perimeter– filled with clear clean water that is prime habitat for a variety of wading birds, migratory birds, bass, and other wildlife.
Lake Okeechobee is located at the end of the funnel for numerous migratory routes across the country. Sandhill Cranes, ducks, and White Pelicans from the Great Lakes region, shorebirds from the Arctic Circle, and Neotropical migrants such as warblers, orioles, and cuckoos from the northeastern forests all enjoy this beautiful American water resource.
Late April is the height of the dry season, so the Lake’s water level is receding. Right now it is just over 13 ft. This is healthy and natural for the lake. A few years ago, the same areas of marsh so abundant with life today were barren. When the Lake had risen too high -above 16 feet for extended periods of time, 70 square miles of marsh were completely drowned out.
Today, the Lake is managed within the ideal range is between 12.5 and 15.5 feet, with some exceptions. A few years ago the Army Corps’ changed the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule for public safety reasons and ecological concerns. The depth of the water must ebb and flow with the seasons, not staying too high or too low for too long. When the water recedes, the seed bank is still there and the vegetation naturally grows back.
Lake Okeechobee is gorgeous right now. Get out there and see it!