OKEECHOBEE — From a bicyclist or hikers view, the use of much of the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) is pretty well over, especially on the south end of the lake.
The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) has undertaken multiple improvement projects in the last few years, starting with the “cut off wall” construction for some 21 miles from Port Mayaca south to Belle Glade beginning in 2007, and now has undertaken a multi-year project to replace a number of culverts that pass through the dike itself.
The culverts in question were installed when the dike was built in the 1930s and have started to deteriorate. To replace a culvert is an 18-to-24 month project.
First cofferdams are installed on the lakeside and landside of the dike and then a large portion of the dike is removed to provide access to the culvert, the old concrete structure is broken up and removed and a new one is formed up and cast in its place, and finally, the dike is rebuilt around the new culvert and the cofferdams are removed. According to John H Campbell, Public Affairs Specialist for the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers they are “currently focusing on 32 water control structures (a/k/a “culverts”) that provide local access to water/drainage. Of the 32 targeted structures one has been removed and four others replaced and 19 more are currently under contract in various stages of replacement.”
In a recent trip around the lake, I was paying particular attention to access to the LOST with the idea of perhaps trying to ride some on the south side of the lake. What I encountered was GRIM to say the least. Nearly all the LOST trail access points, identified on the map provided by the ACOE, are closed.
According to the ACOE and John H Campbell, “Our policy has been to close portions of the trail between trailheads when construction is occurring that impacts the users ability to use 100 percent of the path between the access points. With some stretches of the trail having multiple culverts to replace, it wouldn’t be surprising to see certain portions closed for five years.”
Other than the portion of the LOST from Nubbin Slough to Port Mayaca, there are not many places to ride or walk anymore.
Some residents of Clewiston have taken exception to the extended loss of access to the LOST and the Florida National Scenic Trail, which follows the LOST around the lake and held a series of meetings with the ACOE. They claimed that the loss of access was impacting their health as it removed a recreational area, and impacted the town with a loss of revenue caused by the impact to the tourist industry due to the closures.
Clewiston resident Terry Gardner can see some of the construction from his back yard. Through meetings with the ACOE, they were finally provided an access to the LOST, past the local construction in the form of a path along a construction road, fenced on both sides, and mostly of sand. Their current issue with this access is that the fence is covered privacy fabric and blocks any breeze from the lake, as well as water views and is nearly a mile in length making for a very hot transit to the small open portion of the path in the warmer months. They have contacted the ACOE and cannot get the fabric removed, or even changed to a more open weave, which would allow some of the breeze through.
Additionally, the news from the ACOE in regards the path on the south side of the lake is very bad.
“In 2017, we plan to resume the installation of the cutoff wall west of Belle Glade. It is our intent to install 35 additional miles of cutoff wall through Lake Harbor, Clewiston, Moore Haven and Lakeport. Our current expectation is that the work will run until the mid-2020s, possibly near to the year 2025,” said Mr. Campbell. The only good news he had to share was that: “Our contractors are instructed to return the trail to its pre-construction condition.
Thus, any portions of the trail that were paved before the construction began will have the pavement replaced.”