Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir plans progress

OKEECHOBEE — “In 1947, the state of Florida had one of the worst floods in the state’s history,” Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner told the crowd gathered at the John Boy Auditorium Monday night.

Reading from Lawrence Will’s book “Swampland to Sugarbowl,” she noted that in following the diking of Lake Okeechobee and the channelization of the Kissimmee River, the people at the time thought all their problems were solved.

But continued flooding coming from the north has nowhere to go but east and west, she said.

“We’ve got to work together to have a well managed water system that works for the fields and for the cities,” she said.

The South Florida Water Management District is moving forward with plans to construct a storage reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), using land SFWMD already owns along with property available from willing sellers.

On Monday, SFWMD held a public scoping meeting in the John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston. A second meeting on the same subject is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 26, at 9 a.m. at SFWMD District Headquarters, B-1 Auditorium, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach. SFWMD staff will present identical information during both scoping meetings.

The EAA reservoir is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan explained Matt Morrison, SFWMD Federal Bureau Chief, Office of Everglades Policy and Coordination.

CERP, which includes 68 component projects, was approved by Congress in 2000.

Senate Bill 10, approved by the Florida Legislature in April, moves the EAA reservoir up on the CERP schedule, and provides the state’s portion of the funding required.

Options under consideration are 240,000 acre-feet of storage and treatment on the A-2 parcel in the EAA (already owned by the state), along with some property just west of the A-2 parcel available from willing sellers; or 360,000 acre-feet of storage using the A-2 parcel and the A-1 parcel (also owned by the state). A-1 and A-2 total about 31,000 acres.

An additional 500 acres to the west of A-1 may be obtained from willing sellers. He said feasibility studies will determine if this will be enough land to provide the water storage and treatment required by SB 10.

Mr. Morrison said SFWMD is required to send a report on the options to the Florida Legislature by Jan. 9, 2018.

He said the primary goal of SB10 is to reduce the excess freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the northern estuaries.

“We all have different views. We all have the same problem: too much water in the lake,” said Mary Ann Martin of Clewiston.

She said due to the rapid flow of runoff from the northern Kissimmee River basin after Hurricane Irma, the water in the lake is “the color of Yoohoo soda.”

The sunlight cannot reach the lake bottom, she said. The rapid rise of the lake from the storm runoff is bad for the lake’s ecology, harmful to the fish and the wildlife, she continued.

“Over 90 percent of the water comes in from the Kissimmee River,” she said. “Why are we not planning more storage north of the lake, cleaning the water north of the lake?

“Why are we not putting in more ASR (aquifer storage and recovery)?” Ms. Martin asked.

“ASR and deep injection wells are the solution,” she said. She noted that water stored in ASRs can be recovered for later use in droughts. In extreme rain events, deep well injection could be used to send excess water to the boulder zone — in effect sending it to tide by sending it straight down instead of east or west — without harming the estuaries.

“We’ve got to protect our lake,” she said.

“Why don’t we start north of the lake?” asked Hendry County Commissioner Emma Byrd. “If my house is damaged, I start with the roof.

“I am very concerned about the water entering Lake Okeechobee,” Commissioner Byrd continued. “We cannot correct Mother Nature and we cannot stop her. We need to clean the water before it goes into the lake.”

Mr. Morrison said the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP) is also moving forward to provide storage north of the lake. In addition, he said, the partial restoration of the Kissimmee River will provide addition storage as well as help clean the water before it enters the lake.

Reservoirs are also under construction both east and west of the lake, he added.

“If we can hold more water in storage, it’s just a matter of time before we have a drought and people will be clamoring for that water,” he said.

Several members of the audience said more should be done to address the storm water runoff problems created by the rapid development in the Orlando area.

“Every parking lot, every roadway, every development around Orlando increases the runoff,” said one audience member.

Mr. Morrison said the SFWMD recognizes the problems created by the runoff from development.

Gary Ritter, representing Florida Farm Bureau Federation, asked if the storage in the Kissimmee River restoration area was used during Hurricane Irma.

“During Irma we used everything in our toolbox to move water,” said Mr. Morrison.

“We have a system in place that was built many decades ago. Irma pushed that system to its limits. I don’t think there was anything else we could have done,” he said.

“We live in a swamp,” he continued. “We live in a wetland. We’re going to have rainfall events like that and we have to do the best we can to manage them.”

Others at the meeting questioned whether the EAA reservoir would make any difference during an extreme rain event. Had the EAA reservoir been constructed before Hurricane Irma hit, it would likely have already been filled due to heavy rainfall that fell south of the lake in the months before the hurricane, they pointed out.

Mr. Morrison said the computer modeling used to plan the reservoir and water treatment areas would include more than 40 years of rainfall data.

Senate Bill 10 (also known as the Water Resources Law), calls for the SFWMD to use land the state already owns to build a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. SB10 directs the “expedited design and construction of a water storage reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area to provide for a significant increase in southern storage to help reduce the high-volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee.”

SB10 also supports storage projects planned north, east and west of the lake, promotes job growth in the communities south of Lake Okeechobee and supports programs to convert homes near waterways from septic tanks to sewer systems.

SB10 expressly prohibits the use of eminent domain to obtain land. It allows leveraging land already owned by the State of Florida and the SFWMD, land swaps and purchases to minimize impacts on agricultural workers while achieving 240,000 to 360,000 acre-feet of storage. The legislation also provides grants to establish training programs for agricultural workers.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the legislation on May 9.

The larger reservoir option of 360,000 acre feet of storage could hold about 100 billion gallons of water. In the 30 days following Hurricane Irma, more than 500 billion gallons of water flowed into Lake Okeechobee. One inch of water on Lake Okeechobee is about 12 billion gallons of water.

EAA reservoir alternatives

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