Lake Okeechobee Southern Reservoir Bill Signed  

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Florida Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday, May 9th, signed legislation that is the first step in constructing the long-awaited reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. This will move filtered overflow water to the historic Everglades River of Grass, rather than releasing the untreated flows down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River estuaries that can pollute each coast with blue-green globs of algae blooms. The law authorizes an immediate $64 million in the State’s upcoming budget, with Governor Scott pledging $800 million in future bonds to the project’s $1.5 billion total cost, to be split evenly between the State and Federal governments. In signing the legislation, Governor Scott called the Everglades restoration a top priority, though he was sorry that it did not include $200 million to fortify the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake.

“After 20 years of talking, southern storage is finally becoming a reality,” said Florida Senate President Joe Negron in a prepared statement. “We are well on our way to putting the harmful discharges into the pages of history, instead of on the front pages of newspapers. I look forward to working with Governor Scott and our Federal partners to expedite the planning and construction of this critical project to end the plague of toxic algae that harms the health of our citizens and destroys our environment and economy. We are now not just talking about southern storage; we have a paid-for, set-out plan.” Senator Negron spearheaded the landmark legislation after smelly and foul algae blooms devastated his home district along the Treasure Coast following Lake Okeechobee water releases in early 2016.

The southern reservoir will help halt the discharges of toxic algae overflows into the estuaries by sending water to the Everglades River of Grass via the new reservoir, where it will store 78 billion gallons that is badly needed by the Everglades and Florida Bay that are too often starved for water, while lessening public health impacts and environmental harm to wildlife and aquatic ecosystems. The legislation to replumb the water management system goes back to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) of 2000 that included a southern reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. It will be on land already owned by the State, and prohibits the use of eminent domain.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, that oversees the nation’s large-scale water projects, must change the $1.9 billion Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) by August 1, to include the southern Everglades reservoir component on the 14,400-acre parcel, known as A-2, which is roughly 15 miles south of Lake Okeechobee.

Alphabet Soup

While even the most optimistic of projections put the reservoir construction at no earlier than 2019, there are immediate deadlines on the horizon. By July 1, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) must request that the Army Corps jointly initiate a Post Authorization Change Form (PACF) to the CEPP for the A-2 reservoir; by August 1, the Army Corp must begin work on the PACF; by January 9, 2018, the SFWMD must inform the Florida Legislature of the PACF status; by October 1, 2018, the SFWMD and Army Corp must submit the PACF to the United States Congress; and by December 1, 2019, the US Congress must approve the PACF.

Should these timelines fail to materialize, the Army Corp will then initiate the original A-2 plan that calls for the land to be a shallow-water filtration basin, with the southern reservoir needing to find a new location.

Perhaps the Federal funding component received a jumpstart on Tuesday, May 9, when Congressman Francis Rooney (R – Naples) along with fellow Representative and US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R – Cal) conducted a helicopter tour over the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir already under construction for the Caloosahatchee River, as well as the southern reservoir site, the Herbert Hoover Dike and assorted stormwater treatment projects, with McCarthy calling the Everglades a “national treasure!” This followed an earlier helicopter tour arranged by Congressman Rooney with Representative Ken Calvert (R – Cal), a senior member of the budget subcommittee that oversees Everglades spending.

Trumping the Everglades

A drawback to the Federal funding may be completely out of the hands of Florida politicians, as President Donald Trump is proposing a significant cut to the Army Corps’ 2018 budget, from $6 billion down to $5 billion, or eliminating 1 out of every 6 dollars.

The broad Everglades goal is to eliminate the harmful discharges into the two northern estuaries, where it does too much harm, by redirecting water into the Everglades and Florida Bay that do not get enough. Prior to manmade re-engineering, 99% of the lake’s outflow went to the Everglades; now 70% of unwanted water goes to the Caloosahatchee River in wet conditions, then it gets cuts off in drier seasons like this year. “That is our two-pronged interest – to help protect the estuaries and restore the original flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay that are now distraught ecosystems,” explains Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Policy Director of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). “You can’t solve the issue if you only treat half of the problem.”

To ease opposition from Florida’s powerful sugar industry, Senator Negron scaled back the size of the reservoir in his original plan, to the smaller, but deeper reservoir now to be built on state-owned property, rather than buying 60,000 acres from the agricultural interests, such as U.S. Sugar, which no longer wants to sell these parcels. With the south reservoir land already under the State’s control, Wessel estimates that there will be at least 240,000 acre-feet of storage, with an acre-foot being one acre of land flooded with one foot of water. While this is below the recommended 360,000 acre-feet for the southern reservoir, “this really does not mean we need an additional 30% of storage. Water will continually go out, then will refill it.” As part of the legislative agreement, the State will soon release U.S. Sugar from its then-willing seller provision it agreed to in 2010 that is set to expire in October 2020.

 

Gary Mooney