Reservoir near Buckhead Ridge is still years away

OKEECHOBEE — “Live your lives.”

That was the advice given by Marcy Zehnder of South Florida Water Management District Real Estate Division to those who own property in the footprint of a reservoir proposed as part of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan.

It could be 5 to 10 years — or longer — before any property is purchased for a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee. The current proposed map could change. The project design could change.

She advised landowners to go ahead and put in a new kitchen, or add on a room, or make any other improvements they had planned to their homes.

Ms. Zehnder said any improvements made to the property will be taken into consideration when the property is appraised, if that property is indeed part of the final construction plan.

She said SFWMD won’t buy any land until after the project is approved by Congress.

South Florida Water Management District

“In the early 2000s, SFWMD had a pile of money allocated to us to buy land,” she said. “We took the yellow book (the original CERP plan which had a yellow cover) and started buying land.”

But the federal government was slow in providing the matching funds to construct the CERP projects. As the years wore on, some of the project ideas were changed or altered, and SFWMD wound up with land that was not in the right location for the new plans.

“Lesson learned is that you don’t get in front of the federal government,” she said.

“We won’t be starting anything until we have a project agreement (with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). When we do the project agreement, we will identify parcels in the foot print and send out written notice to landowners,” she explained.

At that point, an appointment would be scheduled for a site visit. Each property owner will be assigned a SFWMD Real Estate contact person to work with them throughout the process.

“The next step is to order the appraisals,” said Ray Palmer, also with SFWMD. “We want to be able to offer you fair market value. We will have an independent appraisal company to come in and get your input on what your property is, to allow you be an advocate for the best value of that property.

“Once the appraisals are done, we go to the SFWMD Governing Board to get permission to make you a written offer. After that we’ll sit down and discuss options such as the possibility to lease back the property until project construction starts.”

He said such an offer could happen within six months from the time the Real Estate division starts property research, or it could take up to 2 years.

He said those who have to move will quality for federal relocation benefits. In some cases, it might be possible to swap property for other land already in state ownership.

Matt Morrison, SFWMD Office Chief, Federal Policy and Coordination, said it typically takes 3 to 5 years to get the state approvals and Corps officials completed. Projects must go through the Corps’ Jacksonville district office as well as the Atlanta regional office and then the national office in Washington D.C. The project would then go to the U.S. Congress, first for approval and then for appropriation. Congress usually considers water projects every other year, but between 2007 and 2014, no projects were considered. After a project is approved, it must wait for Congressional appropriation. And appropriations do not come in one lump sum, but rather in smaller payments over many years.

Jennifer Leeds, SFWMD Section Leader, Everglades Policy and Coordination Division, said the LOWRP is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which was approved in 1999. Water storage north of Lake Okeechobee was always part of that plan, she said.

Since 1999 and 2017, SFWMD and the Corps looked at possible sites for a large reservoir within the boundaries designated for this project by CERP. In 2006, a land suitability study was conducted. More than 20 possible sites were considered. Over the years, some of the sites were found unsuitable for a reservoir but were used for Storm-water Treatment Areas.

In 2016, LOWRP was pulled forward in the CERP schedule, she continued. The LOWRP Project Delivery Team narrowed down the alternatives to four options for reservoirs – all in Glades County – as well as two wetlands restoration projects on the Kissimmee River.

The alternatives are broken down into three components, Ms. Leeds continued: Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells, above ground reservoirs and wetlands restoration. ASRs will not take any land acquisition since they can be placed on land the SFWMD already owns near rivers, canals and reservoirs. The individual footprint of an ASR is about half an acre or less, she said.

The wetlands sites under consideration are Paradise Run and the Kissimmee River Central area north of Paradise Run. Paradise Run is about 4,000 acres; half is already in public ownership. The other wetlands site is about 1,100 acres with most of that land (89 percent) in private ownership. Ms. Leeds said these projects would restore some of the original Kissimmee River floodplain.

The reservoir options range from 14,600 acres to 26,500 acres. The reservoir would be above ground, and enclosed by a dike, with seepage and water control structures.

Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley asked if the reservoir would have soil cement on the inner walls. He said a reservoir that size will experience wave action that will erode an earthen dam. He was assured this would be included in the project.

He also asked why ASRs were only considered for use north of the lake.

Mr. Morrison said the soil composition and the differences in the aquifer mean ASRs work well north of the lake. Tests wells have shown they can store water and also recover most of the water. ASR test wells in other locations, such as on the Caloosahatchee, did not work as well.

“There are areas where it works a lot better than others,” he said. “North of the lake, the Upper Floridian Aquifer works well. Down south, the aquifer characteristics change and the ASRs don’t hold water.”

“If we had this reservoir right now, it would be a detriment to the lake. It would be overflowing,” Keith Pearce noted.

“We would be moving water coming down the river into that reservoir,” Mr. Morrison countered. And we would be also be running the ASR pumps to store water.”

“When we have storage areas, when we see a storm coming, our storage areas are closed up right before the storm,” explained Eva Velez, SFWMD Director, Everglades Policy and Coordination. “We don’t dump those reservoirs out.”

“Better get that in writing!” came a comment from the audience.

“If this reservoir breaks, it’s going to flood Buckhead Ridge,” said Commissioner Stanley. He said such a large reservoir should not be built so close to a populated area.

Steve Pearce said he is concerned about seepage from a reservoir onto the private land next door.

He said when the lake is at 17 ft., his property is wet from seepage through the shell in the Indian Prairie Canal.

“How are you going to keep the water in these reservoirs?” he asked. “Right now, the lake is up to nearly 17 ft. and my ground is saturated. I haven’t had more than 3 inches of rain in the past two weeks, and my land is saturated.

“You haven’t looked north,” he said. “The problem comes from Orlando. You could build reservoirs way up the Kissimmee River in areas that are not populated.”

Mr. Morrison said the soil studies and geotechnical data they are gathering will help them design reservoirs that will not adversely affect adjacent landowners. He said they can put in a canal to collect seepage and pump it back into the reservoir. They can also use clay to put in underground cutoff walls to stop the movement of water.

He said from a standpoint of efficiency the most cost-effective place to site the above-ground reservoir is near the river and the lake. Mr. Morrison said in the rainy season, water comes down the river very rapidly and it would be hard for a pump to capture water quickly enough to send it to a reservoir father north. “We are building a system that can take water from the river or the lake,” he said.

He said there are plans in place to attempt to slow the flow down the Kissimmee River. He said they are looking at the regulation schedules for the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to hold more water north.

Mr. Pearce said Glades County area near the river already has issues with excess water.

“How many hours a week is the pump running at Buckhead Ridge to maintain the level of the Rim Canal so Buckhead Ridge doesn’t flood?” he asked.

Mr. Morrison said the Herbert Hoover Dike in the Buckhead Ridge area does not have a cutoff wall, which is the reason there is seepage from the lake into the Rim Canal when the lake level is high.

“The reservoir would have a cutoff wall if it needed it to prevent seepage,” he said.
He said the reservoir would help during the wet years by reducing the need to send fresh water to tide via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which damages those estuaries. He said it would also provide more water for agriculture, environmental and urban use during droughts.

“Storing water will let us keep the water until we need it,” he said.

Okeechobee City Councilman Gary Ritter suggested the SFWMD use smaller parcels of land the SFWMD already owns for smaller storage areas, reducing the size of the larger reservoir needed.

“All of those areas could collectively help in getting to the storage goals,” he said.

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