Mast tries to delay storage north of lake

WEST PALM BEACH – Congressman Brian Mast this week asked the South Florida Water Management District to delay approval of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP). In a Dec. 11 letter to SFWMD exeutive director Drew Bartlett, Congressman Mast claimed LOWRP “could jeopardize the timely completion of the Everglades Agricultural Area storage reservoir project which provides far greater benefits to reduce harmful discharges and restore the Everglades.”

“The letter asking you to delay northern storage with the LOWRP is irrresponsible and it is absolutely pushing forward a false narrative that sets up one Everglades Restoration Project against another,” Nyla Pipes of One Florida told the SFWMD governing board at their Dec. 12 meeting. “The EAA reservoir will not work to the full benefit without the northern portion of Everglades restoration.”

The state legislature right now has money set aside to help, on their end, with the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, she continued. The money set aside for LOWRP by the state is not in competition with the funding the state has pledged for the EAA reservoir and stormwater treatment area (STA) project.

Mrs. Pipes added that certain environmental groups have recently objected to the use of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells which are included in LOWRP.

“It’s very interesting their concerns have become such a drum beat as of recent, considering those ASR wells have been a part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) since its inception,” she continued. CERP was approved by Congress in 2000. ASR wells “are not unproven technology,” she said.

“We have a nearly 5,000 square mile drainage basin into Lake Okeechobee. If we don’t start taking care of Lake Okeechobee, we are never going to make the progress with water quality and water quantity that we need downstream,” she continued.

Ms. Pipes encouraged the governing board to “keep your foot on the gas pedal” with all of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects, and to “not prioritize one part of the ecosystem against another.”

Scientists with the University of Florida’s Water Institute have maintained storage is needed north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee, as stated in the 2015 Water Institute Study. Storage projects are under construction east and west. The EAA reservoir project, south of the lake, is planned and awaiting federal permits, which are expected to be ready by May 2020. The missing piece is storage north of the lake.

LOWRP is not a new project. Initial planning started more than a decade ago. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, “after being put on hold in 2006, planning efforts restarted in 2016. The project was re-scoped under USACE’s new planning paradigm and a new array of alternatives was analyzed. A Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP) was chosen and documented in an integrated Project Implementation Report and Environmental Impact Statement (PIR-EIS). The draft PIR-EIS was made available for public review on July 6, 2018. The revised draft PIR-EIS was made available for additional public comment on July 5, 2019. The Chief’s Report is being prepared for congressional authorization in 2020.

“The Florida legislature provided $50 million in FY20 to begin implementation of LOWRP components designed to achieve the greatest reductions in harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries. The SFWMD has begun siting evaluations for well cluster locations identified in the Integrated Project Implementation Report and Environmental Impact Statement (PIR-EIS). Construction of exploratory wells is anticipated to begin in late 2020.”

Congressman Mast is not the first to attempt to pit one CERP project against another. In 2016, the Everglades Foundation published a study that purportedly compared the benefits of the northern and southern storage projects. At the time, both SFWMD and Corps officials responded that comparing the two was not a useful exercise because both northern AND southern storage are needed.

In a May 7 meeting of the lake area counties in May, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds called it the “myth of competition.” The projects are not competing against each other, she explained. The CERP projects all work together.

“The greatest problem that I see in many of the conversations is that often they start out as a myth of competition,” explained Lt. Col. Reynolds.

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