Donald Trump Has Very Bad Ideas About How to Manage Lake Okeechobee

Yesterday Hillary Clinton joined Al Gore at Miami Dade College's Kendall campus to give a serious, policy-heavy speech about her plans to tackle climate change and other environmental issues. It was one of the wonkier moments in her campaign and a breath of science-heavy fresh air amid all the mudslinging.

A few hours later, Donald Trump took the stage in Panama City and also threw out some ideas about environmental management. His thoughts were, shall we say, slightly less scientifically sound.

"My administration will address important environmental priorities like the Everglades and ensure water quality all across America, including the fixing of water problems like Lake Okeechobee," Trump told the crowd, sounding reasonable enough.

Then he continued, "It's amazing. You know, Lake Okeechobee, they're always letting the water out. Do you ever notice we always have droughts? They're always letting the water out. Keep it in! We won't have any droughts."

Now, there are plenty of complaints about the Army Corps of Engineers' handling of Florida's giant water basin. The Corps has been accused of letting water levels get dangerously high as Hurricane Matthew approached, and of polluting coastal waterways with discharges.

But Trump might be the first person ever to blame droughts on water being let out of Lake O. Is there any truth to his claims?

Not so much, says Dale Gawlik, professor and director of Florida Atlantic University's Environmental Science Program. Gawlik has spent years studying avian ecology and wetland ecosystems and says Trump's idea of keeping water levels high in Okeechobee would be a disaster for the environment. 

"If you were completely uncaring about the ecology of Lake Okeechobee and the fish and birds that live there and just view it as a big holding tank of water, what he's saying could have some merit," Gawlik says. 

Most Floridians, though, care about Lake Okeechobee's ecology — especially nearby residents who depend on it for most of their economy. Commercial fishermen and tourists into bird watching and bass fishing depend on a healthy lake. The survival of its animals and plants depends on keeping the lake at a "sweet spot" of depth — between 12 and 15 feet.

In the late '90s, Gawlik says, the Army Corps actually did let water levels get higher. The result?

"When you don't let the water go down, the vegetation all died off. There were very few small bass left at the end of that period," he says.

Beyond the ecological impacts, there's also a basic safety issue at work. The 1928 Okeechobee hurricane breached the lake's southern edge, killing at least 2,500 people as water surged 20 feet high through nearby towns.

"The lake can't go above a certain level because of the structural integrity of the lake, so you're capped out there," Gawlik says. "We're already almost there."

So, in short, the water level can't be allowed to rise too high because the lake will literally burst, and unless it's periodically drained to the 12-to-15-foot range, an ecology that fuels the local economy would crumble.

"What he's suggesting is you throw out all the ecological importance, which is tied to a lot of tourism and industry there, and just look at drought alone," Gawlik says.