Dike repair is top priority for lake coalition

OKEECHOBEE — Herbert Hoover Dike repairs still top the priority list for the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee.

The coalition met Nov. 3 in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse to set the list of priorities to bring up for the coming state and federal legislative sessions.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner said because of the risk of flooding, areas south of the lake were evacuated as Hurricane Irma approached. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has now classified those areas as in a flood zone.

“The City of Clewiston took it on the chin,” said Commissioner Turner. “There are people who could lose their homes because of the flood insurance.”

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said after the dike repairs are completed, the corps will recommend accreditation to FEMA, which should change the flood maps.

She explained they don’t have to wait until repairs to the entire dike are completed. They can recommend accreditation to areas of the dike as the repairs are completed in each reach. (The corps refers to sections of the dike into “reaches” for planning purposes.)

“We don’t certify the reaches,” she explained. “We recommend certification to FEMA. FEMA certifies them.”

Col. Reynolds said the corps is encouraged by Florida Governor Rick Scott’s plan to use state funds to help speed dike repairs, and by President Trump’s support and pledge of federal dollars. With additional funding, they hope to complete repairs by 2022.

“We’re excited to be partnering with the state to be able to accept additional dollars from the state and apply it to this project,” she said. “Right now our official construction schedule will still show 2025 as completion until we receive funds that allow us to expedite that time line.

To speed repairs, the corps will need about $200 million each year starting in 2019 to finish the dike in 2022, she said. “It’s a significant amount of money.”

Since work on the repairs began, the largest appropriation the corps has was $153 million.

“Last year our appropriation was $82 million,” said the colonel. “We’re talking about a significant amount of money to expedite to 2022.”

Another item on the priority list is continued support of the Kissimmee River Restoration, which is schedule for completion in 2020. Col. Reynolds said the last contract for that project has been signed.

The coalition also supports funding necessary to complete the St. Luce C-44 reservoir and STA and the entire Indian River Lagoon South Project, including the C-23, C-24 and C-25 projects, and funding necessary to complete the Caloosahatchee river (C-43) west basin storage project and explore an associated stormwater treatment area (STA) component.

Other items on the priority list include:

• Support an updated Water Resources and Reform Development Act every two years to include authorization of crucial ecosystem restoration projects and Congressional appropriations.

• Support the governor’s 2018-2019 recommended budget which at a minimum includes $305.8 million for Everglades restoration and an additional $50 million for Herbert Hoover Dike repair.

• Support the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Legislative budget request in the amount of $50 million to fund the Water Infrastructure Investment Program to improve water quality and to ensure a sustainable water supply for the State of Florida.

• Support home rule and the ability for local governments to protect their unique environments.

At the request of Commissioner Turner, the coalition added a proposal to increase funding to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for aquatic plant removal on Lake Okeechobee.

“Right now on Lake Okeechobee, I believe the budget is $2.5 million for the entire vegetative management control,” said Commissioner Turner. “That’s a joke of a number. I would like to request $25 million.”

He said the additional funding would be for burning off vegetation when the lake is low and to start a pilot project for mechanical harvesting of aquatic vegetation.

“If you have a swimming pool that is a mess, you don’t just add more water,” he said. “You have to clean it out.”

He said the current aquatic vegetation management process is to spray vegetation with herbicide, which causes the plants to die and fall to the lake bottom, where they contribute to the build up of muck.

He said if they gave FWC the budget for mechanical harvesting, to actually remove the plants from the lake, it would also remove some of the nutrient load.

“With $2.5 million their hands are tied,” he said, as that only pays for spraying. He said they need at least 10 times that much funding to make any progress in removing harmful invasive exotic vegetation from the lake.

Commissioner Frannie Hutchison of St. Lucie County suggested they start by asking for money for a pilot program.

The coalition agreed to add “Propose the state increase budget of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission by $25 million for invasive plant management and aquatic habitat management in Lake Okeechobee as a pilot project, including but not limited to prescribed fire and mechanical harvesting.”

Commissioner Turner pointed out that projects done on Lake Trafford and Lake Apopka had significant improvement.

He said in extreme dry weather when the lake bottom is exposed, they should burn off the exposed muck.

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