CEPP project is critical to send more Lake Okeechobee water south to Florida Bay — but it will take time

OKEECHOBEE — Discussion of last year’s massive freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee and Treasure Coast Algal Bloom are still in the news, and a key piece of the puzzle — a piece critical to the success of any plan to send more water south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay — deserves some attention.

CEPP has widespread approval from South Florida Water Management District, Audubon Society, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Everglades Foundation. The Coastal Conservation Association of Florida calls CEPP “the best chance to help provide the earliest relief to our estuary systems.”

“CEPP can bring approximately 67 billion gallons of water to improve the habitat in Florida Bay, especially preventing future seagrass die-offs currently threatening valuable fisheries in the Florida Keys,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a December 2016 interview with the Miami Herald.

CEPP uses land already owned by the state to increase the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee south, clean it and send it to Florida Bay. The state already owns about 25 percent of the land in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The planning process was “fast tracked.”

Funding of $1.95 billion for CEPP projects was included in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act of 2016, which was approved by both houses of Congress and signed in law by President Obama in 2016.

According to the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) work will start on some CEPP projects in 2018 with final completion of all CEPP components in 2030.

That’s what the federal government considers the “fast track.”

While CEPP will help reduce harmful discharges from the lake to the coastal estuaries, it’s just one piece of a complicated puzzle.

Florida Bay doesn’t just need fresh water. It needs clean water.

Before water can be released into the southern Everglades and on to Florida Bay, it must be cleaned so that it has no higher than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorus. Cleaning water with filter marshes takes time. Water must move slowly for the process to work.

Bridge work needs to be done along with CEPP projects, as otherwise the water has no significant unobstructed path to flow south.

Some numbers to consider:

• In 2016, 6.5 billions of water from Lake Okeechobee flowed to Florida Bay through Taylor Slough. A SFWMD project to increase flow to Taylor Slough is expected to double that amount in 2017.

• CEPP is designed to store, treat and send south about 65.2 billion gallons of water per year from Lake Okeechobee.

• During 2016 — a year of record rainfall with an unusually wet “dry” season — more than 720 billion gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee was discharged to the coastal estuaries.

• South Florida normally receives 70 percent of its annual rainfall during the five month ‘wet season.’

• The EAA reservoir was always part of the CERP schedule. It was on the Integrated Delivery Schedule for planning to start in 2021. If the amended SB 10 passes, planning will be moved up to 2018.

• The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer plans originally called for 11 miles of the Tamiami Trail to be elevated so water can flow underneath to Florida Bay. That plan was rejected as too expensive and scaled back to 6.5 miles. One mile of bridging was completed in 2013. Construction on a 2.6 mile section began in 2016. Original estimate for completion of that section is 4 years.

• When built, the actual EAA reservoir will only hold 15 percent of the excess lake water discharged to the coastal estuaries in 2016. Estimates that it could help reduce discharges by 50 percent assume the flow way would already be in place to send the clean water south underneath the Tamiami Trail to Florida Bay.

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