Federal shortfall could stall reservoir

There’s no federal funding in the budget for the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir next year.
President Donald Trump signed the Water Resources Development Act, authorizing the EAA reservoir last October, but his budget for fiscal year 2020 does not include money for the project.

“The southern reservoir is not part of the FY’20 budget,” Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained to the County Coalition for the Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon at its March 22 meeting.

Lt. Col. Reynolds said the corps does have funding for EAA reservoir design in the FY’19 budget, so the design work will continue this year.

“If we don’t receive money for FY’20, the corps work will have to stop,” she said.
The reservoir, to be built on a 10,100-acre site, will hold 240,000 acre-feet of water. When full, the above-ground reservoir will hold water about 23 feet deep. The berm around the reservoir will be more than 30 feet high. A 6,500-acre Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) will be built next to the reservoir.

The corps has estimated design and engineering for the massive reservoir project will take two to three years. After the design and engineering work is complete, construction will take another four to five years.

But none of that happens without funding. Like all CERP projects, the reservoir is supposed to be financed 50-50 by the state and federal governments. Estimated project cost is $1.4 billion.

The EAA reservoir is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The reservoir was on the CERP Integrated Delivery Schedule for 2025, but in 2017, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 10, moving the reservoir up on the schedule. State officials planned the project in record timing and then submitted the project for federal approval. (Under normal conditions, the initial planning phase of a “fast-tracked” project involving the corps takes three years.) In September 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives approved America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which included authorization of the EAA Reservoir. In October 2018, the president signed the bill.

Work on the reservoir site started less than a month later. The state of Florida already owned the land where the reservoir will be built; it was part of a 1998 purchase of 100,000 acres of sugar cane fields known as the Talisman property. The state leased out the portions of the property not needed immediately for construction of water storage and treatment projects.

In November 2018, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board approved a lease extension with Florida Crystals, taking back 560 acres of the land immediately. The lease allows Florida Crystals to continue farming the rest of the land for up to eight years, with the condition that after 20 months, the state can cancel the lease on a field-by-field basis with four months’ notice. This allows the state to continue to collect approximately $1 million a year in rent on the property until the corps is ready to start construction. It also means Florida Crystals is responsible for managing the property, and paying property taxes on the land.

Without the extension, the lease would have expired in March 2019.

A week after signing the lease extension agreement, SFWMD workers were on site bulldozing the former sugar cane fields and preparing the 560-acre site to stockpile rocks and materials that will be used to build the reservoir. Taking the 560 acres back at the start of the dry season allowed them to jump-start the work. Had they waited until March when the lease expired, there would have been little productive time for site work left before the wet season began, SFWMD officials explained at the time.

The lease agreement also allows SFWMD to gather geotechnical data on the entire site. This data is needed for project engineering and design. SFWMD is sharing this data with the corps.

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

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