Reservoir for north of lake proposed near Buckhead Ridge

OKEECHOBEE — The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project (LOWP) reservoir option deemed the most efficient has Glades County property owners and officials worried.

At the Sept. 26 LOWP meeting at the Okeechobee South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) officials presented the four options under consideration for a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee, and ranked the options based on benefit to the habitats of the lake and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Kevin Wittman, who presented the economic analysis, said the option labeled Alternative 1Br is the most cost effective.

This is reservoir alternative 1Br which has been selected for recommendation to the South Florida Water Management District governing board by the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project Development team. The circles indicate approximate locations for aquifer storage and recovery wells. These have a footprint of about 1 acre each.

“We will never recommend a plan if it is not the most cost-effective and justified to achieve the desired level of output,” he said.

The alternative includes a 14,600-acre reservoir which would provide 198,000 acre feet of above-ground storage, and 80 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells that would provide 448,000 acre feet of storage per year.

The preliminary cost estimate is $1.8 billion.

“Economic analysis is not going to tell us whether or not a project should be done,” he said. “From our prospective, the plan 1Br is the option that is the most cost-effective. This team won’t make a decision. We make a recommendation, we layout the positives and negatives for the decision makers.

“The decision will be made by the SFWMD governing board and Congress,” he added.

The location of the proposed reservoir, west of the Kissimmee River in Glades County, drew concerns.

“If that reservoir breaks, every house in Buckhead Ridge will be 10 feet under water,” said Keith Pearce.

Glades County administrator Paul Carlisle asked about the ad valorem taxes Glades County will lose if the property is taken off the tax rolls.

“We don’t get any taxes on the (the Glades County portion of) the lake, but we have to provide services,” he said.

He said they need to consider how this project would effect the people who live in that area.

“You all are looking at a significant amount of water storage,” said Okeechobee City Councilman Gary Ritter. “You’re not really addressing water quality.”

Gretchen Ehlinger, who gave the USACE environmental report, said while LOWP is not a water quality project, there will be ancillary benefits.

All of the options under consideration will reduce the phosphorus load to Lake Okeechobee compared to the “future without” any of these projects.

SFWMD board member Brandon Tucker also questioned the choice of the reservoir site, and potential hazards to the area in case of a hurricane.

A Seminole Tribe representative voiced concern that wildlife now living in the reservoir area will be forced onto the adjacent Brighton Reservation land.

“When I look at these maps, all are deep reservoirs,” said Steve Schubert, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He questioned how the plan might change the C-38 canal (the channelized portion of the Kissimmee River). Specks and shad spawn in the C-38, he said.

“If you destroy that nursery area, you will destroy those fisheries. The last time I checked, the ‘R’ in CERP stands for restoration, not kill fish,” he noted.

Mr. Schubert said the wetlands restoration proposed for Paradise Run and the Kissimmee River Center are the only true restoration projects in the LOWP options under consideration.

Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon said more attention should be paid to the environmental damage caused by water levels in Lake Okeechobee above 16 feet.

A single high-water event in Lake Okeechobee can affect the lake’s ecology for years, he pointed out.

“People say it only happens every five years,” he said. “It takes five years for the lake to recover.”

The development team looked at approximately 20 potential sites for reservoirs north of Lake Okeechobee before narrowing it down to four alternatives. They also considered many options for wetlands restoration before tentatively selecting two areas near the Kissimmee River.

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