Property owners oppose siting of reservoir near SR 78

OKEECHOBEE — “We knew this meeting was going to be personal,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer A. Reynolds, deputy district commander for South Florida in the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, at the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) meeting held Aug. 2 in the Williamson Conference Center at Indian River State College in Okeechobee.

LOWRP meetings on July 31 in Lehigh Acres and Aug. 1 in Stuart attracted people more interested in complaining about the lake releases and algae in coastal waterways than discussing plans for water storage north of the lake. Those attending the Aug. 2 meeting in Okeechobee zeroed in on the proposed project to build a shallow reservoir and wetlands project just north of State Road 78, adjacent to the Kissimmee River in Glades County.

The Okeechobee gathering included public officials, anglers, business owners and residents from all around the big lake. Many of those who spoke at the meeting own property in or near the footprint of the proposed project. If the currently proposed project is built, some will lose their homes.

The packed conference room also included a contingent of West Point cadets who were there to learn about U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a group of Big O Teen Anglers, a youth organization that hosts monthly fishing tournaments on Lake Okeechobee.

Most in the crowd agreed there is a need to store water north of the lake. Many questioned why the storage is not planned farther north in the watershed, which starts at Orlando. They also urged the corps to use land the state already owns instead of taking more land off the tax rolls.

Lisa Aley, corps manager for this project, said LOWRP is just one of many restoration projects going on in South Florida.

The proposal is for above-ground and below-ground water storage as well as wetlands.

LOWRP would work in conjunction with the Kissimmee River Restoration, the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of the lake and the C-44 and C-43 reservoir projects under construction east and west of the lake.

“Florida has a pretty complex dynamic,” Ms. Aley explained. “So many people now live in areas that historically used to be wet.”

The flow down the Kissimmee River used to be a slow meander, she continued. In the rainy season, when the lake level rose, it would flow south in a large sheetflow.

“The more people started moving here, the more drainage projects resulted,” she said.

After the Great Florida Flood in 1947 left most of South Florida under water, in 1948 Congress directed the Army Corps to come up with a flood control plan. This plan included canals to drain water off the land, the channelization of the Kissimmee River to speed water south, building the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake, and using the St. Lucie Canal to the east and Caloosahatchee River to the west to flow water from the lake to the ocean.

“Water comes in six times faster than we can release it,” she said.

“The system does not function as it used to. We have lost a lot of the storage and filtration capabilities of the wetlands that used to be around the lake,” Ms. Aley said.

“We know we need more storage so we can have more flexibility in water management,” she said.

The corps also wants to restore some of the lost wetlands.

The preliminary budget for LOWRP is $1.4 billion. This includes restoration of the Paradise Run wetlands near the mouth of the Kissimmee River and restoration of a wetlands area father north on the river. It also includes a wetlands attenuation project — a 12,500-acre shallow storage area that will provide 43,000 acre-feet of storage. (One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre of land 1 foot deep).

“As the water comes down the Kissimmee, we can divert the flow into this wetland attenuation feature so it doesn’t go into the lake,” she said.

In addition, the project includes 80 Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells.

“When we have too much surface water, we can treat it to drinking-water standards and then pump it into the aquifer,” Ms. Aley explained. During dry times, the water can be pumped back out. The 80 ASR wells could pump 400 million gallons per day.

The ASRs do not require additional land acquisition, she said. They can all be built on land already owned by the South Florida Water Management District. The circles on the map presented at the meeting show the general locations proposed. The actual wells have a very small footprint.

To restore the wetlands, “we would recarve portions of the historic channel and flow the water back through,” she explained. The proposal would restore two wetland areas that were lost when the river was channelized.

Ms. Aley said the corps hopes to see the lake within the ecologically preferred stages (12.5 to 15.5 feet) more often, with fewer extreme highs and extreme lows.

Storing water north and keeping the lake within the preferred stages will also help restore the marshes around the lake, she said, which benefit water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

The public comment portion of the meeting brought out local concerns.

“We’re definitely against you buying any land in the county and taking it off the tax rolls,” said Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley.

He said if the project has to be done, Glades County would like a half-mile corridor along State Road 78. With Bass Pro taking over the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area, that will be a prime area for commercial development, he said.

Mr. Stanley said that leaving a half-mile buffer between SR 78 and the project would also protect most of the homesteads in that area.

“If there was an eagle’s nest out there, you would build around it,” he said. “Shouldn’t people be given the same consideration as a bird?

“You’ll build around a bird but you won’t build around somebody’s house,” Mr. Stanley said.

Okeechobee Commissioner Bryant Culpepper said there are a lot of factors affecting the lake’s water quality.

“Does Lake Okeechobee have blue-green algae? Absolutely. So does every other freshwater lake,” he said. Mr. Culpepper said the algae blooms along the coastal waterways are being fed by the drain fields from septic tanks.

“Let’s get those septic tanks and wells into a municipal system,” he said. “I don’t want to spend $1.4 billion and it is not going to work.”

“We don’t believe that any land that is not already owned by the state or federal government should be used for any restoration project,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner.

She said the South Florida Water Management District owns a lot of land throughout the district that could be used for restoration projects.

“There is land from Orange County down that should be looked at,” she said. “We don’t want to see any more land taken off anybody’s tax rolls.”

Mayor Gardner said she is fully supportive of ASR wells, which can be built on land SFWMD already owned.

She added she also fully supports deep well injection — also called estuary protection wells — which would send water deep into the boulder zone, effectively sending it to tide by going straight down instead of east or west, but that is not part of the LOWRP proposal.

“We all have to work together,” said Mayor Gardner. “It’s a problem north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee.

“We all want to see Lake Okeechobee clean and healthy,” she said. “We stand together tonight knowing projects must be done.

“On the south end, we keep having fingers pointed as us, and we know we are not the problem,” she added.

Steve Dobbs, who lives in Buckhead Ridge, said that as an engineer he often runs into the problem of NIMBYs — people who don’t object to a project in theory, but say, “Not In My Back Yard!”

“Guess what? I’m a NIMBY tonight,” he said.

He suggested they consider excavating instead of building the reservoir above ground.

Matt Pearce, of Rockhill Ranch and Pearce Cattle Co., said his family has two home sites in the project footprint — one was established in the early 1900s.

“I am against the project but support what the corps is trying to do for the lake,” he said.

He said he is also concerned about cultural and archaeological sites within the footprint.

Mr. Pearce stated that SFWMD owns thousands of acres to the north that could be used for northern storage without taking more land out of private ownership.

The fifth-generation cattleman also questioned the work being done on the Kissimmee River restoration, noting the restored area is inundated with wax myrtles.

“On the Kissimmee River, it used to be you could look across the river and see the guy on the other side. That’s not the way it is now,” he said.

Ramon Iglesias, from Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina & Resort in Clewiston, asked whether it’s possible to start with the ASRs.

“If we don’t have a healthy lake, we won’t have a healthy Everglades,” he said.

“Before you take any land, you have to make sure these people are compensated,” he continued. “We do need this project. We need it for the health of the lake. But if you do need to take any land, you need to make sure these people are compensated.”

Glades County property owner Brad Phares said: “Our property is not within the current footprint of the reservoir, but what it is effectively going to do is sandwich our property between two giant bodies of water. I have little faith that it is not going to leak and affect our property next door.”

He also asked the corps to look at other land SFWMD already owns. “It needs to be done. I just think there should be a better place to do it,” he said.

“We have endangered species on the property now,” said Mr. Phares. “If they are on our property, they are on the adjacent properties.”

Phyllis Norris said she has a very small piece of property right in the middle of the proposed project area.

“I don’t think landowners have had a fair shake in their representation,” she said. She also questioned whether the shallow above-ground reservoir would hold water, given the geology of that area.

“Why can’t you do a pilot project on the property that is already (state) owned to prove what you are trying to do here?” she asked.

Fishing guide Justin Jones noted that the lake’s water quality is hurt by the loss of aquatic vegetation. Chemical spraying of Lake Okeechobee for invasive plants is hurting the lake, he said.

“I challenge biologists to rethink the idea of the ‘invasive’ vegetation to improve the water quality in the lake,” he said.

“My property is not in the footprint right now,” said Donald Jones, whose family has a ranch in Glades County. He said his land was in the footprint of an earlier version of the LOWRP plan.

“I’m not sure what we are seeing now is going to be the final project,” he said.

“You have started so many projects. Have y’all ever finished one?” he asked.

Mr. Jones said his land was involved with the Lake Okeechobee Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) project, which included testing runoff from ranches.

“Our water was clean enough out of our pastureland to go into the lake,” he said. “Yet agriculture is being blamed for the problems in Lake Okeechobee. I don’t think agriculture is getting the credit it deserves for taking care of the land.”

Mr. Jones said he knows the coastal communities have more political power that the rural counties around the lake.

“People vote, cows don’t. I think that is where the issue lies,” he said.

Keith Pearce, who said he is probably the largest landowner within this footprint, explained that his father fought the original channelization of the Kissimmee River.

“He told the corps it was going to be nothing but a problem,” said Mr. Pearce. “He told them leave it alone. You dug through the biggest phosphate deposit in the world when you dug the channel.”

Now, pushing the material that was dredged from the channel back into the river “is creating a bigger mess,” he said.

“You’ve got plenty of other projects that have been started, projects where the land has been purchased and nothing has been done.

“We’ve got lands that are turned into jungles because they haven’t done anything with them,” he said.

“Use this money and redirect it to another project,” he suggested.

“Unlike the coasts, where they have thousands of different types of business, we don’t,” said Mike Krause of Okeechobee Fishing Headquarters. “We have farming. We have ranches. We have fishing.

“Our businesses depend on tourism,” said Mr. Krause.

“The amount of negative publicity has got to stop,” he said. “If it doesn’t stop, none of the businesses in here will have a business.

“Right now the way the lake is, we need something. The district owns so much land north of Lake Okeechobee that was purchased for all these different projects. Take this money and do a project north.”

“Short-term fix, keep the grasses on the lake and then look at projects north,” he said.

Dennis Duke from the U.S. Department of the Interior said the overall project provides a lot of good benefits. He said restoration of the Paradise Run wetlands has been on the books for years. Mr. Duke said he is disappointed with the amount of water storage provided by this version of the project.

Dr. Paul Gray of Audubon Florida said the extreme high and low water levels hurt the lake.

“The lake went to 17 feet last year,” he said. “It caused a lot of damage.

“When we have a drought, it can go down to 9 feet.

“People who designed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) knew storage was needed north, south, east and west.

“This project is moving in the right direction,” said Dr. Gray. “It helps take off the highs.

“I know the reservoir component is controversial,” he continued. “This is a conceptual design right now. This is not the final design.

“The ASR wells, we think will help,” said Dr. Gray. “Paradise Run restoration is wonderful.”

He said he hopes that in the future the corps will work more with private landowners on projects such as water farming and private partnerships to store and clean water.

Larry Howard, representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said he is concerned about what would happen if the reservoir breached. He added that his concerns are not only for Brighton Seminole Reservation, which is near the project footprint.

“We live here. We’re the ones who raise our kids here,” he said. “These people have families out there.

“We see the climate change. We see the change in the weather. We didn’t create that land.

God created that land. These lands were put there for a reason. These problems started when you guys came in and put all of these things in to stop this water flowing through,” he said.

“There are other places you could do this project. I know it. Everybody else here knows it.

You are going to try to fix a problem and create another problem. At the end of the day, all of us people are going to have to deal with the contaminated water,” Mr. Howard said.

He suggested spending the $1.4 billion to create a filtration system for the lake.

“There is a fix to it, but that right there (the proposed project) is going to put a lot of lives in jeopardy,” he said.

Lt. Col. Reynolds said public comments about LOWRP will be accepted through Aug. 20, and may be submitted by email. To send your comments via email, send to OkeechobeeWatershedRestoration@usace.army.mil, or they may be mailed to Dr. Gretchen Ehlinger, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019.

The final plans will be submitted sometime in the summer of 2019. The first possibility for federal project funding will be in the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). After that it would take about two years to go to appropriations. Once funding is appropriated, different parts of the project can be built sooner than others. The whole project will take five to eight years, she estimated. If Congress does not pass a 2020 WRDA, funding could be in the 2022 WRDA.

Once funding is authorized, work on the ASRs can start immediately, she explained, since the land is already in state ownership and this is a proven technology. “We have ASRs all over the state,” she said, including a pilot project on the Kissimmee River.

While Congress considers a WRDA every two years, there are sometimes gaps in passing a WRDA, such as the periods from 2000 to 2007 and from 2007 to 2014.

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

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