Dike work on track, but funding critical

OKEECHOBEE — “We’re in for a wet year,” Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer A. Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Lake Worth Lagoon at its June 1 meeting.

The lake right now is the second-highest it has been in this decade for this date, she explained. It is higher than it was when Hurricane Irma hit last year.

South Florida Water Management District reports the levees are ready for the hurricane season.

She said that, as high as the lake is now, if it had a large spike of water from a hurricane as happened with Irma, “the lake looks pretty bad.”

In the month following Irma’s landfall, the lake rose by 3.5 feet due to heavy runoff from the north.

“We are additionally concerned because all WCAs (Water Conservation Areas) are already above schedule,” Lt. Col. Reynolds continued. The WCAs south of the lake are already at capacity from rainfall in that basin even though water is moving south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay at the maximum flow possible with the existing water control structures.

The corps started releasing water east through the C-44 Canal and west into the Caloosahatchee River on Friday in an attempt to slow the rise of the lake.

“We’ve had the wettest May on record,” said Lt. Col. Reynolds.

“The next three-month prediction is above-average rainfall,” she added.

The National Hurricane Center predicts one to four major storms this year.

“I think we can anticipate releases will continue for some time,” said Lt. Col. Reynolds.

She told the coalition that the work on repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike continue.

“It’s going well,” she said.

“Everyone is talking about are we on track to complete in 2022?” someone asked.

“Yes, we are on track, but there is a lot of distance between now and 2022.”

Lt. Col. Reynolds said the president’s budget for 2018 includes $82 million for the dike repairs, and the State of Florida allocated $50 million.

For 2019, the president has requested $96 million, she said. “That still needs an appropriations bill.”

Lt. Col. Reynolds said the project will need additional money in 2020, 2021 and 2022 to stay on track for completion in 2022.

“When we don’t get the federal funding on time, it affects the schedule to award contracts,” she added.

“It’s not over yet,” she continued.

“Letters from Senator Nelson and Senator Rubio said that congressional intent was for it to be fully funded,” she explained.

There are projects across the nation competing for that financing, she added.

She said funding for other water projects is uncertain. The president’s budget for fiscal 2019 is putting emphasis on finishing projects that are already under construction, she said. This could mean delays for projects that are still in the design and planning stages.

“We all know the importance of the entire CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) program,” she said.

Every project in CERP is an important part of the overall plan, she added.

“The hard part is there is not enough funding to authorize all of the projects across the board. Every time we want to add something, there is that elephant in the room of what we are not going to do,” she continued.

She said the addition of the EAA reservoir to the Central Everglades Planning Project will mean there won’t be federal funding for something else.

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