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The Managed Recession of Lake Okeechobee, Florida: Integrating Science and Natural Resource Management

Alan Steinman, Annis Water Resources Institute, Grand Valley State University
Karl Havens, South Florida Water Management District
Lewis Hornung, South Florida Water Management District


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Resource management decisions often are based on a combination of scientific and political factors. The interaction of science and politics is not always apparent, which makes the decision-making process appear arbitrary at times. In this paper, we present a case study involving Lake Okeechobee, a key environmental resource in South Florida, USA, to illustrate the role that science played in a high-profile, highly contentious natural resource management decision. At issue was whether or not to lower the water level of Lake Okeechobee. Although scientists believed that a managed recession (drawdown) of water level would benefit the lake ecosystem, risks were present because of possible future water shortages and potential environmental impacts to downstream ecosystems receiving large volumes of nutrient-rich fresh water. Stakeholders were polarized: the agriculture and utility industries favored higher water levels in the lake; recreation users and businesses in the estuaries wanted no or minimal discharge from the lake, regardless of water level; and recreation users and businesses around the lake wanted lower water levels to improve the fishery. Jurisdictional authority in the region allowed the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District to take emergency action, if so warranted. Based on information presented by staff scientists, an aggressive plan to release water was approved in April 2000 and releases began immediately. From a hydrological perspective, the managed recession was a success. Lake levels were lowered within the targeted time frame. In addition, water quality conditions improved throughout the lake following the releases, and submerged plants displayed a dramatic recovery. The short-term nature of the releases had no lasting negative impacts on downstream ecosystems. Severe drought conditions developed in the region during and following the recession, however. Severe water use restrictions were implemented for several months. There also were impacts to the local economy around the lake, which depends heavily on recreational fishing; use of boat launch areas was curtailed because of the low water levels in the lake. This case study provides an example of how science was used to justify a controversial decision. Although the environmental basis for the decision was validated, unexpected or unpredictable climatic results led to socioeconomic challenges that offset the environmental successes.

Key words

aquatic resource management, environmental management, Lake Okeechobee, lake restoration, light and aquatic plants, restoration ecology, role of science in management, submerged aquatic vegetation, water supply vs. ecological health

Copyright © 2002 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087