A Historical Perspective on Water Levels and Storage Capacity of Lake Okeechobee, Florida: Pre- and Early Drainage Periods

Evaluating the water storage function of Lake Okeechobee can provide important insight into understanding the lake’s historical role in attenuating the magnitude and timing of flows (particularly during the wet season) in the Greater Everglades region. This article investigates the predrainage and early postdrainage spatial extent, lake stages, and changes to plant communities. Two periods of time were assessed: predrainage (prior to 1880) and early postdrainage (1880–1945). Analyses were conducted by integrating written historical accounts, lake stages, and hydrographs with a geospatial analysis derived from nautical charts and other historical maps from additional points in time (1913 and 1926). Results indicate that predrainage lake stages were much higher than the current water management regime, but the spatial extent of the lake open water is relatively unchanged. We estimated a reduction in storage volume of Lake Okeechobee from 6,922 million m3 to 4,347 million m3 during the early postdrainage period (1880–1945) at high lake stages. This represents a loss in volume of 2,575 million m3 at a high lake level and of 3,016 million m3 at a low lake level. The loss in storage volume has changed the historical flow patterns from the Lake Okeechobee region with consequences to downstream watersheds. Key Words: bathymetry, environmental history, Everglades, geographic information systems, shoreline.