President Trump tours Lake Okeechobee

CANAL POINT — President Donald Trump visited Lake Okeechobee on Friday, touring the lake by helicopter, and stopping at a construction site on the Herbert Hoover Dike near Canal Point. He praised the work being done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rehabilitate the berm that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

CCA students greet Trump in Canal Point. A WPTV-Channel 5 News reporter interviews Katrina Sutton, a teacher at Clewiston Christian Academy who traveled with a group of students wearing “Make Lake O Great Again” caps to greet the president during his visit to Canal Point on Friday, March 29. Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Becky Jackman

“It’s important in terms of safety,” said President Trump.

“What we’re doing is very, very important.”

“It’s was very dangerous,” he said. “It’s a big project, but it’s a great project for Florida.”

During the brief period of comments on the dike, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the president has committed to supporting the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir, but the president himself did not mention it. He said they are also seeking funding to raise more of the Tamiami Trail.

“The most important issue in Florida is water,” said Senator Marco Rubio.

“You have a chance, Mr. President to go down in history as the Everglade’s president, the person who helped save and restore the Everglades,” he said.

“The Everglades is very important and very important to me,” said the president.

Senator Rick Scott gave the president credit with helping to obtain the federal funding to expedite the rehabilitation of the dike.

“I shared with the president when we were down by the water that it took us 13 years with the funding that we had to get this project to the halfway point,” said Major General Scott Spellmon, Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations, United States Army Corps of Engineers. “With his leadership and all of the elected leadership from the State of Florida, it will only take us three years to get it the remaining 50 percent.”

Rubio tweets goals

On Friday morning, Senator Marco Rubio shared his goals for President Trump’s tour of the lake with a series of tweets:

“We secured funds last year to speed up & finish Hoover Dike. Because it came from disaster money, it freed up Everglades money to advance other restoration projects.

“The ideal outcome is $200 million a year sustained over period of time to complete full suite of interconnected #EvergladesRestoration projects. The less money we get, the longer it will take. We MUST stay on schedule.

“Single biggest reason I gave up post on Commerce Committee to serve on Appropriations is to fund #Everglades. We will get more $ than @POTUS budget currently requests. BUT his number is relevant because the higher his number the higher the final funding will be.

“Goal of today’s visit is to sell @POTUS on making #EvergladesRestoration a legacy achievement of his Presidency. @realDonaldTrump has a chance to be the #Everglades President. Something that will matter long after all of us are gone.”

In February, Senator Rubio, Senator Scott, and Governor DeSantis urged President Trump to include a sustained annual commitment of $200 million in construction funding for South Florida Ecosystem Restoration (SFER) in his administration’s future budget requests to Congress. Senator Rubio and his colleagues reiterated their position earlier this month after the president’s budget was released.

The president’s initial budget allocated only $63 million for Everglades projects — less than had been funded for the previous year’s budget, and less than a third of the $200 million a year requested by the Florida delegation to get the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan on track. The president’s initial budget plan did not include any funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

About the EAA reservoir

A component of the state-federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir will send needed clean water south to the Everglades while reducing damaging discharge events from Lake Okeechobee to the estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee, according to the South Florida Water Management District website. The project will hold 240,000 acre-feet of water and include a new constructed treatment wetland, known as a Stormwater Treatment Area, necessary to meet state and federal water quality standards.

Congress authorized the EAA Storage Reservoir in October 2018 with passage of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. Less than a month later, SFWMD crews began clearing 560 acres of the project site to stage construction materials. This initial site work will reduce the overall construction time frame once project design has been completed.

The corps has started design work on the project.

The project, which will cost an estimated $1.6 billion is to be a 50-50 cost share with state and federal funding. The estimated timeline is two-to-three years for engineering and design and four-to-five years for construction.

As of March 22, the corps had no funding for the EAA reservoir project in the 2020 budget.

Without funding in 2020 corps officials say the design work will stop.

About the dike

Herbert Hoover Dike (HHD) is a 143-mile earthen dam that surrounds Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades system.

The first embankments around Lake Okeechobee were constructed by local interest from sand and muck, circa 1915. Hurricane tides over topped the original embankments in 1926 and 1928, resulting in over 2,500 deaths.

The River and Harbors Act of 1930 authorized the construction of 67.8 miles of levee along the south shore of the lake and 15.7 miles along the north shore. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the levees between 1932 and 1938.

A major hurricane in 1947 prompted the need for additional flood and storm damage reduction work. As a result, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1948 authorizing the first phase of the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project. The new dike system was completed in the late 1960s and named the Herbert Hoover Dike.

By the 1990s, the corps had identified problems with the aging dike. Following the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, a panel of engineering experts determined the potential for dike failure posed “grave and imminent danger to the people and the environment of South Florida.”

In 2007, the corps placed the HHD rehabilitation at the top of the list of dam safety projects in the country.

In 2016, the corps estimated the dike project — which was fully funded by the federal government — would be complete in 2025. Following high water concerns that resulted in massive freshwater releases from the lake to the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie canal, then-Governor Rick Scott proposed adding $200 million in state funds over a four-year timeline to help speed up the work. In 2017 and 2018, the State of Florida budgeted $50 million per year to help the corps with the expedited dike rehabilitation.

In 2018, Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which fully funds the project to completion with the expedited schedule using federal funds.

Former Gov. Scott was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 2018 election.

More than $1 billion dollars has been invested in work to reduce risk at the dike structure since 2001. Actions taken include installing a partial cutoff wall along the southeast part of the dike, removing and replacing water control structures (culverts), and conducting a variety of studies and technical reviews to help ensure the safety of south Florida residents. Corps teams work daily on the dike, providing contractor oversight, quality assurance, inspections, and dike operations and maintenance.

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

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