EAA reservoir has been in the plans since 2000

OKEECHOBEE — A reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee has been part of the Everglades restoration plan from the beginning. See graphics below.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was authorized by Congress in 2000, including 68 projects to “restore, preserve, and protect the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” At a cost of more than $10.5 billion and with a 35-year time line, CERP is the largest hydrological restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

One of the CERP projects, the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir, was under construction in 2008 when work was suspended after a lawsuit was filed by environmental groups, and then canceled in favor of newly-elected Governor Charlie Crist’s plan to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee from U.S. Sugar. (That plan was later abandoned. State officials later determined it was not cost-effective. Most of the property owned by U.S. Sugar is in Hendry County, and not in the EAA.)

The EAA reservoir project stayed on the CERP list and was scheduled for 2021.

In 2016, Florida Senate President Joe Negron put the EAA reservoir idea back on the table, arguing that it would help reduce the need for harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries in years with high rainfall.

Senate Bill 10 (SB-10) signed in May 2017, gave the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) the task of designing the reservoir project, using land already in state ownership and/or EAA land acquired from willing sellers. SB-10 gave the SFWMD a deadline of Jan. 9, 2018 to present a plan to the legislature to accomplish that goal.

On Jan. 9, the SFWMD did just that, providing five alternatives to meet the requirements outlined in SB-10, with two marked as “best buys” as the projects considered the most cost-effective. All five alternatives reduce discharges from the lake to the northern estuaries, increase flow to the greater Everglades and achieve water quality standards, according to the report.

The alternatives use land already in state ownership, plus about 500 acres of private land SFWMD believe they can obtain from willing sellers. The vast majority of property owners in the EAA rejected SFWMD offers to buy more land. About 25 percent of the EAA is already in public ownership.

The proposed alternatives are sited on former sugar farm land that was purchased for the original EAA reservoir plan — the one that was derailed in 2008. That property is currently used for water conservation areas (WCAs) and a Flow Equalization Basin (FEB).

One of the “best buys,” Alternative R240A includes a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir, with a footprint of approximately 10,100 acres and a depth of approximately 23 feet. This alternative includes a stormwater treatment area of approximately 6,500 acres. This option preserves the A-1 Flow Equalization Basin. Estimated cost with this alternative is $1.34 billion.

The other recommended project, Alternative C360C is a 360,000 acre-foot reservoir with a footprint of approximately 19,700 acres and a depth of about 18 feet. This option can serve multiple purposes including increasing water supply. Estimated cost with this alternative is $1.71 billion.

Both of the “best buy” alternatives include recreational uses of the reservoir and stormwater treatment areas, providing additional benefits to the taxpayers.

The EAA reservoir is proposed to be built as part of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which itself is part of CERP. Congress approved CEPP in 2016, and the EAA reservoir will require approval from Congress as a change to that plan. Congress will also be asked to approve the additional funding needed to add the EAA reservoir to the construction plans.

Without the other CEPP projects, the EAA reservoir would be static storage. CEPP provides increased flow from Lake Okeechobee to the EAA reservoir area and increased flow from the reservoir area to the Everglades and to Florida Bay.

Flow south from the WCAs south of the EAA is blocked by the Tamiami Trail, which acts as a damn, stopping the sheet flow of water to the Everglades. One mile of raised bridging has been built and another 2.5 miles is under construction. CEPP would expand that work to increase the flow south to Florida Bay.

What happens next?

The timeline calls for the state to present their recommendation to the Assistant Secretary of the Army by March 30, then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin their review process, which will take another six months.

Under the best case scenario, Congress could approve the project by the end of 2018. But it could take longer.

Like all CERP projects, the EAA reservoir calls for a 50-50 funding split between the State of Florida and the federal government. SB-10 identifies the state funding. The federal half of the funding depends on a Congressional appropriation.

When the project is finally green-lighted by Congress with a funding appropriation, it will take about three years to design and another five years to build, according to the SFWMD report.

Some of the public land in the EAA is leased. When the state purchases land for a future project, it is common practice to lease the land back to the original owner until the property is needed for the project. That keeps the land on the tax rolls, keeps the land in productive use, and also means the property owner will continue to take care the property.

In South Florida, land that is not managed is often quickly overrun with non-native invasive vegetation. If the original owner does not want to lease the land back, the lease is put up for competitive bid. In the case of the EAA land that will be used for the reservoir and stormwater treatment projects, those leasing state property have been notified that their leases will not be renewed. It will be at least four years before any construction can start.

The proposed alternatives for an Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir would be built on property the state already owns, labeled A-2 and A-1 on the map. The area in light pink is private property (about 500 acres) which will be purchased from willing sellers. Graphics courtesy SFWMD.

Alternative R240A includes a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir, with a footprint of approximately 10,100 acres and a depth of approximately 23 feet. Graphics courtesy SFWMD.

Alternative C360C is a 360,000 acre-foot reservoir with a footprint of approximately 19,700 acres and a depth of about 18 feet. Graphics courtesy SFWMD.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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