Senate considers ways to stop lake releases

OKEECHOBEE — The Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Environmental and National Resources heard testimony on options to reduce harmful freshwater discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries at a public hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

Ashley Istler of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee said historically the water from the Kissimmee River Valley, sheet flowed slowly south into Lake Okeechobee, and when the lake rose and overfilled the banks, the water sheet flowed south into the Everglades.

The system was modified for flood control and land development, she explained. Now the lake fills up much faster than it can drain.

In 2016 dry season, Florida received a record amount of rainfall. When the water in the lake rose, water was released east and west to protect the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike.

About 725 billion gallons of freshwater was released to the coastal estuaries, and the reduction in the salinity levels hurt the estuaries damaging oyster beds and allowing the growth of algal blooms.

Usually when an algal bloom reaches the ocean, the high salinity level kills off the algae bloom, she said. In 2016, the bloom was unusual because it affected the beaches.

On average, she said. About 20 percent of the water that goes into the coastal estuaries comes from the lake. In 2016, due to the record rainfall north of the lake, 40 percent of the water to the estuaries came from the lake.

A massive algal bloom was seen on the lake. Algae was carried throughout the system and it is likely the nutrient load present in the coastal area intensified the bloom, she said.

The state seeks ways to reduce the harmful freshwater releases.

More water storage needed north and south of lake

Dr. Wendy Graham, Director of University of Florida Water Institute, said the institute conducted a water study at the request of the Florida Senate.

The scientists reviewed existing plans and looked for options to accelerate projects to reduce the freshwater releases to the estuaries.

“There’s no short-term easy solution, no magic silver bullet,” she told the committee.

“The solution is enormous increases in storage and treatment of water north, south, east and west of the lake,” she said.

“The path forward requires significant, consistent long-term investment in the infrastructure,” she said.

While there are many factors to consider, for the purpose of her report to the committee, Dr. Graham looked at just two considerations: reducing the excess flow to the coastal estuaries and providing enough high quality water to restore the Everglades ecosystem.

She said existing and planned projects do not provide enough storage.

About 200,000 acre feet of storage is needed east of the lake to hold runoff in the St. Lucie basin, she said. Right now about a 50,000-acre-foot reservoir is under construction.

In the Caloosahatchee River valley, about 400,000-acre-feat of storage is needed, both to hold excess water and to provide water to the river during the dry season when the lake level is too low for discharges west.

She said a reservoir for 170,000 acre feet is under construction.

North and south of the lake

Around the lake “roughly a million acre feet must be distributed north and south,” she said.

Currently there is only 172,000 acre feet under construction or planned, and all of this storage is south of the lake.

She said the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) was revised in 2008 due to concerns about the safety of the dike. Due to these changes the lake is kept about 1 foot lower than before the change.

One foot of water in Lake Okeechobee is about 450,000 acre feet of storage, she explained.

Looking at the options for water storage, she explained that 750,000 acre feet of storage north of the lake and 300,000 acre feet of storage south of the lake would provide a 90 percent reduction in harmful releases to the estuaries and also provide sufficient water for the Everglades. Alternately 300,000 acre feet of storage north of the lake and about 680,000 south of the lake achieves the same result.

“Various combinations will achieve this,” she said. However, in addition to storage they must consider the issue of water treatment, she continued.

Before water can be released into the Everglades, it must be sent through filter marshes to absorb the excess phosphorus.

Keeping the level of phosphorus in the water entering the Everglades below 10 ppb is critical for the ecology of that area.

“Water must be treated before it goes into the Everglades no matter where it is stored,” she said.

Storage is needed both north and south, she emphasized.

Currently the state has 170,000 acre feet south of the lake; zero storage north.

Committee members asked which area is most cost effective.

She said storage north or south gives about the same results for reducing the discharges to the estuaries and providing water to the Everglades.

However, there are many other factors to consider, she said.

Storage is needed both north and south, she maintained.

“The faster we can build out existing projects, the better,” she said.

“We need storage and treatment north of the lake.

“We need additional storage and treatment south of the lake,” Dr. Graham said.

Dr. Graham said her team also considered options for deep storage and ASR (aquifer storage and recovery).

“Different restoration targets have different benefits,” she said.

“If you want to protect the estuaries, it’s pretty equal north or south.

“You can’t achieve the Everglades restoration with storage only north of the lake.

“We need both,” she said.

Dike repairs underway

“The Corps is repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike because of the dam safety risk. That dam is not safe for the people who live and work around the lake.

Whether we store more water is a separate issue,” said Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, Deputy District Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.

She said the original federal purpose of having the Corps of Engineers involved in South Florida was to deal with the flooding issues that resulted from private and state projects that tried to drain land for development and agriculture.

During the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, the levees on the south end of the lake failed to provide protection, she said. Thousands of people died as a result.

“In 1947, much of south Florida was under water for several weeks,” she said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with helping the state with a flood control system.

“The flood control system worked splendidly,” she said. But in 1960s and 70s many Americans became concerned about environmental issues, so new projects were developed with environmental benefits as well as flood control in mind.

“Managing this massive system is an incredibly complicated process,” she said.

In 2016 Lake Okeechobee received more than 1 trillion gallons of water, not including direct rainfall, she explained. “The challenge is what to do with all this water.

She said they did send 270 billion gallons south, but couldn’t send more water south during the wet season because the water conservation areas were already full of direct rainfall.

Previous storms have shown that a tropical storm or hurricane can raise the level of Lake Okeechobee up to 4 feet in 30 days.

After Tropical Storm Faye in 2008 “it took us over five months to move that same amount of water that was received in 30 days,” she said.

After Hurricane Ivan, 19 billion gallons of water a day flowed into the lake.

The maximum release is 8 billion gallons per day, she said, and that is only if it stops raining. Often once the lake rises, continued rainfall keeps the lake high despite maximum releases.

“When water levels exceed 18 feet, we have observed things that could lead to real failure of the dike,” she said.

“So when the lake is above 15 feet, especially at the beginning of wet season, we have to release water, because of the potential for the lake to rise 3 to 4 feet (due to a storm event),” she explained.

“Everything tells us we need storage north, south, east and west,” she said.

“Part of the solution is to slow down water north of the lake, as well as storage needed north of the lake,” she said.

“Storage is needed east and west because those basins are separate from the Kissimmee River basins,” she said. “Outflow from those basins affect the estuaries.”

She said that while the purpose of the dike repairs is to prevent a breach that would endanger the people who live around the lake, once the dike repairs are finished, the Corps and SFWMD will review the lake water storage schedules.

Since 2001, $870 million has been invested in dike rehabilitation, Lt. Col. Reynolds said.

“We have about 800 million left to go.”

She said they expect dike repairs to be completed in 2025. They will start to study possibilities for changing the LORS in 2022, and the new schedules could be implemented in 2025.

She said the federal government is funding the dike repairs.

“This dike is placed among the highest priorities among over 700 dams across the nation,” she said. She added that about 25 percent of the Corps national funding goes to the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs.

A member of the Senate committee asked if the Corps would consider halting releases from Lake Okeechobee if blue-green algae is found in the lake.

“We saw blue green algae developing not just in Lake Okeechobee but in water bodies throughout the State of Florida,” said Lt. Col. Reynolds.

She said they can’t always predict how algae will react to releases.

“Sometimes the discharges break up the algae.

“Sometimes the discharges make the algae worse.

“Our decision was in not wanting to compound the blue-green algae problem with the public safety risk of putting the dam at failure,” she said.

“The single most important project that can be implemented to reduce damaging discharges to the estuaries and restore flow to the Everglades is completion of the EAA Storage Reservoir, which has been an integral component of Everglades restoration for more than 20 years,” Gary Goforth, water resources engineer, told the Senate committee.

He said the committee should focus on accelerating land acquisition south of the lake, but added that he is “convinced we don’t need 60,000 acres.

“I think roughly 35,000 acres would be sufficient to satisfy the goals of the Everglades storage,” he said.

He suggested the A-2 storage area, which the state already owns and currently uses for shallow storage and water treatment, could be used for deeper storage.

“It has been the policy for the past six years to move forward with building projects,” said Pete Antonocci, SFWMD Executive Director.

He said the property that Mr. Goforth mentioned, A-2, is owned by the state, and leased to agriculture. That lease expires mid-2018, and SFWMD has given notice of intent to terminate that lease, he said.

“All along we have recognized this is an essential part to storage south of the lake and land in A-1 and A-2 has been prepared to accommodate a reservoir that is 15 feet deep,” he said.

That 15,000 acre reservoir could accommodate about 200,000 acre feet of water storage, he said. “If you add a few more acres of land from willing sellers, you could build a bigger storage area,” he added.

However, every time you store water north or south of the lake, you have to consider whether it can be cleaned, he cautioned. Water storage areas must flow into water treatment areas to allow vegetation to absorb the phosphorus in the water before it can flow into the Everglades.

One of the committee members asked about the importance of the water quality in Lake Okeechobee.

“Lake Okeechobee is critical to everything from Orlando to Florida Bay,” he said.

Representatives from the communities south of the lake traveled to Tallahassee for the hearing, but were only briefly introduced when the hearing ran out of time.

“There are lives and businesses and livelihoods at stake in the Glades community and we want to continue to be part of your conversation,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Liz McKinlay. Also present were Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles and former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor.

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