Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lake Okeechobee - Florida's Largest Lake

Lake Okeechobee is located in South Central Florida at the junction of five different Florida counties: Palm Beach, Martin, Okeechobee, Glades and Hendry. 

Lake Okeechobee seen from Space - NASA photo
Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in the State of Florida, covering exactly 730 square miles and is approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island.   

 It is the seventh largest freshwater lake in the US, but the second largest freshwater lake entirely contained within the 48 states of the lower U.S. and the largest lake completely in one state.   

The lake is 37 miles long by 30 miles wide.  When standing on a shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, you can never see the opposite shore.

Lake Okeechobee is unusually shallow for its size.  The average depth of the lake is only 9 feet deep. The Lake links the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico via the Intracoastal Waterway System.  Access to Lake Okeechobee using the Intracoastal Waterway is through the Port Mayaca locks on the East side of the lake and through the Moore Haven Locks in the West.   At its capacity, Lake Okeechobee holds 1 trillion gallons of water.

The Big Lake - Photo by The Florida Audubon Society
Lake Okeechobee and its wetlands are at the heart of the Greater Florida Everglades watershed, an area that stretches from the Kissimmee River through the Everglades and finally empties into the Florida Straits at Florida Bay.   

Lake Okeechobee is a key component of South Florida's water supply and flood control systems as well as being a large factor in Florida weather patterns.

History of the Name “Okeechobee”

Lake Okeechobee comes from the Hitchiti Indian words “oki” meaning “water” and “chubi” meaning “big”, so it translates “Big Water”.  The oldest name for the lake was “Mayaimi” coming from the 16th century and also meant Big Water.  The 18th century Spanish called the lake “Laguna de Espiritu Santo”.  Early in the 19th century it was called “Mayacco Lake” and “Lake Macaco” after the Mayaca Indians who came to the area from the St. Johns River area.  The modern Port Mayaca, on the East side of the Lake in Martin County, preserves this name.  Today, area residents refer to the lake as “The Big O”, “Lake O”, “The Lake”, and “Big Lake”.

Geological Make up of Lake Okeechobee

Kissimmee River Valley-Geo.Skene Orlando Sent.
Lake Okeechobee sits in a shallow geological trough of clay deposits that also underlie the Kissimmee River Valley and the Everglades.  This trough compacted more so than the limestone and sand deposits did along the coasts of peninsular Florida. 

Prior to 4000 BC, the trough was dry land. As sea levels rose, rainfall increased, and the Florida water table also rose.    

From 4000 BC to 2000 BC, wetlands began forming and peat deposits developed in what is now Lake Okeechobee.  With the increasing water levels came increasing water flow into the trough and eventually the wetlands were drowned out and the lake was created.  Along the South side of the lake, wetlands built up layers and layers of peat quite rapidly, forming what we now call muck.  The peat grew in depth to nearly 14 feet thick, forming a dam and holding back water.   

Once filled, the waters of Lake Okeechobee raised high enough to flood its banks and flow towards the coast and became the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.  

The floor of Lake Okeechobee varies in depth from 1 foot to 13 feet deep and is a limestone basin.  Water is murky due to tannins in the area, vegetative growth, and agricultural runoff. 

Water flows into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River, Fisheating Creek, Lake Istokpoga, Taylor Creek and many sloughs such as Nubbin and Nicodemus Sloughs.  

Water Management records show that the Kissimmee River provides more than 60% of the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee, with Fisheating Creek coming in second providing approximately 9% of the total inflow. 

After the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 killed nearly 3,000 people in the area, the US Army Corps of Engineers designed a plan to encircle the Lake with a series of channels, gates and levies.  The Herbert Hoover Dike was built and officially opened as The Okeechobee Waterway on March 23, 1937.  The dike has been expanded several times, after the 1947 hurricane, in the 1960’s, and over the past ten years.  However, by constructing The Hoover Dike, humans changed the nature of the lake.

Herbert Hoover Dike - Lake Okeechobee
Outflow from Lake Okeechobee was historically through the Everglades, but in the past century most of this outflow has been diverted for public water supplies on the coasts.   

Canals were dredged and connected to coastal rivers such as the Miami River in Miami, the New River in Fort Lauderdale and the Caloosahatchee River on the Southwest Coast of Florida.  The diking of Lake Okeechobee changed the outflow of its waters, so today the lake is essentially a reservoir.

Water From Lake O on its way to the Coast - SFWMD
 The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District direct the water of Lake Okeechobee using dikes, canals and floodgates to protect against flooding, to prevent saltwater intrusion, to provide water for agriculture, and to supply drinking water to the large urban centers of South Florida. Water management has often burdened the Florida Everglades by diverting water to other areas…robbing Peter to pay Paul so to speak.  In place of the naturally occurring wet and dry seasons which provided steady sheets of incoming water, the Everglades now alternates between times of drought followed by powerful discharges of water.

Recreation on Lake Okeechobee

Bass Catching in Lake O
Freshwater Fishing - The most common fish in Lake Okeechobee are largemouth bass, crappie (often times called speckled perch), and bluegill.  Lake Okeechobee is famous for the number of bass it contains per acre and for the quality of fish it produces.  The lake produces more bass over 7 pounds than any other lake in the country.  Several professional angling organizations hold tournaments on Lake Okeechobee annually. Historically catfish were harvested out of Lake Okeechobee, and a few are still out there being caught.

Hunting - Lake Okeechobee is famous for its duck hunting, alligator hunting, and frog gigging.  Florida Fish and Wildlife is responsible for issuing licenses and publishing regulations.  Check with them at www.myFWC.com for more information.

Photo by George Skene, Orlando Sentinel 2009

Boating – Lake Okeechobee is a shallow lake, so most boating is done by small fishing craft, bass boats, pontoon boats or airboats.  Larger vessels often traverse the Okeechobee Waterway staying close to channel markers and going on to the Intracoastal Waterway on either coast.

Hiking & Cycling – The man-made Herbert Hoover Dike is home to the well-maintained pathway of the Florida Trail, and part of the National Scenic Trail.  The paved trail is 10 feet wide and circles Lake Okeechobee high above the lake on top of the grassy dike.  The trail offers wonderful vistas and is used by hikers, cyclists, birdwatchers, photographers and other wildlife enthusiasts.  

Wood Storks
Wildlife Watching- Lake Okeechobee provides natural habitat for fish, birds, alligators, ducks, and other wildlife and attracts recreationalists from around the world.  Lake communities offer access to the lake in different manners.   Some, like Pahokee have large marinas, while others offer parking and ramp access to the lake.  You can find lake access every few miles as you circle Lake Okeechobee by road.  

Looking for Lake Okeechobee Access?  Here's a list ofLake Okeechobee Boat Ramps 

The Small Towns and Communities of Lake Okeechobee

You’ll find many small rural communities nearby or on the shores of Lake Okeechobee.  Most Lake communities have economies tied to fishing or agriculture.  Here's where you’ll find them: 

Okeechobee County, on the North shore of Lake O, you’ll find Okeechobee City and the fish camps of Lake O.  Okeechobee County is the only county in the state with only one city.  Residents of the entire county will tell you they’re from Okeechobee…this doesn’t mean they live in the city itself!

Martin County, Florida
Martin County, on the East side of the lake, you’ll see the beautiful hamlet of Port Mayaca.  The view of the Lake is quite breathtaking from Port Mayaca.  Travel slightly inland on the Intracoastal Waterway East and you’ll find the town of Indiantown.

In Palm Beach County, on the East and Southeast shoreline of Lake Okeechobee, you’ll find the hardscrabble rural communities of Canal Point, Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay.  Drive over the dike in Pahokee and you’ll find a wonderful park and marina.

In Hendry County, you’ll see the town of Clewiston, and the communities of Lake Harbor and Harlem, all on the South side of Lake Okeechobee.  Clewiston is the home of Florida’s sugar industry and is a busy little town.

Glades County, Florida
In  Glades County, one of the most rural counties in the state, you’ll find the fishing community of Buckhead Ridge on the North side of Lake O, Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation and the town of Lakeport on the West side of Lake Okeechobee, and Moore Haven on the Southwest side of Lake O. 

Strolling the Trail - Herbert Hoover Dike Okeechobee County

So there you have it.  

Florida’s biggest lake—Lake Okeechobee—and the recreational towns surrounding this beautiful Lake.  

Bring your camera.

@Sanne Collins 2012 - All Rights Reserved

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