Lake water storage, north or south? Both, say experts

OKEECHOBEE — Florida Senate President Joe Negron promotes a plan for the state to spend $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir to hold excess water from Lake Okeechobee.

The University of Florida Water Institute study indicates storage is needed both north and south of the lake.

The South Florida Water Management District also promotes the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) which calls for storage both north and south of the Big O.

But when asked to compare the benefits of storage north and storage south, SFWMD officials found storage options had some benefits in common and some unique to each side of the lake.

• Storing water north allows for treatment of water before it enters the lake. Reducing the phosphorus load into the lake is key to eventually reducing the phosphorus levels in the lake, according to Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. Water stored south of the lake will not help reduce the phosphorus levels in the lake. Cleaning water before it goes into the lake means cleaner water throughout the system.

• Storage north or south will result in a reduction of discharges from Lake

Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

• On the north side, there is limited infrastructure in place. On the south side, water storage projects can take advantage of existing infrastructure such as storm water treatment areas and canals.

• On the north side, the district owns about 20,000 acres that is available for use or to swap for other land that can be used for storage. On the south side, most state-owned land is committed to other CERP purposes; however, about 15,000 acres of the former Talisman property has been identified as a possible water storage site.

• If the state has to buy land or add to existing state-owned property, the land north of the lake — mostly pasture — would be less expensive than land south of the lake that is currently used for sugarcane farming.

• Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) pilot projects show the geological conditions of land north of the lake is more suitable for ASR than is land south of the lake.

• Storing water north allows for greater operational flexibility. Water flows downhill. Water stored north can be released to flow into the lake and then south or west as needed. Water stored south can only go further south.

On Jan. 11, Dr. Graham of the University of Florida Water Institute, told the Senate Appropriations Committee said water storage is needed north, south, east and west. When pinned down on the benefits of north vs. south, Dr. Graham said if measuring the projects only for the ability to reduce discharges to the coastal estuaries and providing water supply for the Everglades, then a variety of combinations of north and south storage work.

All of those scenarios include some storage north of the Big O.

In 2014, Florida voters in approved Amendment 1 to the Florida Constitution to dedicate 33 percent of the state’s take in real estate taxes to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. According to the Florida Secretary of State website, “the Land Acquisition Trust Fund was developed to acquire and improve conservation easements, wildlife management areas, wetlands, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, beaches and shores, recreational trails and parks, urban open space, rural landscapes, working farms and ranches, historical and geological sites, lands protecting water and drinking water resources and lands in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and the Everglades Protection Area. The fund was designed to manage and restore natural systems and to enhance public access and recreational use of conservation lands.”

Senator Negron’s plan would require a 50-50 match with the federal government. It remains to be seen if or when the federal government would provide the matching funds.

Senator Negron’s proposal has drawn criticism from representatives of northern Florida counties, who say part of the Amendment 1 money should be used to address water issues in their areas. It is also opposed by officials south of the lake who say taking 60,000 acres out of agricultural production will mean the loss of about 1,000 jobs.

Search for the truth about Lake Okeechobee

In a Jan. 23 interview, EarthJustice Attorney Alisa Coe said EarthJustice supports fighting to stop pollution in the lake, but stopped short of endorsing plans to store water north of the lake in order to clean it before it enters the Big O. She said EarthJustice only supports the water storage projects south of Lake Okeechobee.

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