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Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and is one of the largest in North America. The lake is home to many different species of fish and birds, and is an important source of water for the southern tip of Florida. The lake has a surface area of approximately 730 square miles (approximately 1,175 square kilometers). Despite its massive size, it is a relatively shallow body of water, with depths averaging less than 10 feet (3 meters) to a maximum of typically less than 20 feet (approximately 6.1 meters).
The name Lake Okeechobee comes from a Seminole tribal word meaning "big water." Standing on one shore, it is impossible to see to the opposite side. The lake is the second largest freshwater lake wholly contained within the United States. Only Lake Michigan, also within the boundaries of the United States, is larger. Some of the other Great Lakes are also larger, but those lakes are shared with Canada.
One of the most important contributions Lake Okeechobee makes to the state is to provide a source of freshwater for the southern sections of Florida. The lake is an important source of irrigation for sugar cane and other crops in the region. It also supplies water to urban areas. If the lake drops below a certain level, the irrigation canals will not be fed by gravity. Therefore, the water levels in the lake may dictate certain usage restrictions.
In addition to its use as a source of freshwater, Lake Okeechobee also provides a variety of recreational opportunities. The lake is one of the most famous producers of largemouth bass in North America. They can be caught year round, with the area's temperate climate. Therefore, the recreational fishing industry, as well as other outdoor pursuits, tends to have a big impact on the region.
The management of the lake is not without its critics. Some have suggested the use of water from the lake for irrigation and other purposes has been negative on the environment. For example, they argue that the lake may help starve the Everglades of water at some points of the year. Conversely, it may flood the Everglades at other points of the year, leading to even more problems.
While the problem of pollution is not unique to Lake Okeechobee, it has hit the lake very hard. The state of Florida has undergone a program to help restore the lake to ensure its continued health. The program focused not only on watershed projects, but also projects in the lake itself that could help improve water quality.