SFWMD hosts meeting on reservoir plan

OKEECHOBEE — A 14,600-acre reservoir proposed in Glades County just west of the Kissimmee River is the most cost-efficient way to increase water storage north of Lake Okeechobee, according to the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWP) team. The reservoir would provide 198,000 acre feet of water storage north of Lake Okeechobee.

That recommendation, released last week, has drawn criticism from Glades County officials.

They voiced concerns about the danger to the residents of Buckhead Ridge if the dam around such a reservoir should break, and about the loss of ad valorem taxes if the state takes even more Glades County land off the tax rolls.

In a letter to the LOWP Project Delivery Team, Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley wrote, “If this levee were to fail, it would put enough water in S-127’s basin to cover the whole basin in 10 feet of water. We all know that the water will run south and most likely will be deeper than 10 feet along the southern edge. The second largest community in Glades County, Buckhead Ridge, is in this basin.

“If (or should I say when?) this levee were to fail in the middle of the night, it would be catastrophic to our community. The Herbert Hoover Dike was built to protect us from rising levels in Lake Okeechobee, a naturally occurring lake that needed to be dealt with. By building this reservoir you are creating a public hazard 10 times the magnitude of the Herbert Hoover Dike failing for the residents of this basin.

“I am not against water storage; I can accept a stormwater treatment area in the basin, but not a reservoir that could drown thousands in their sleep. There may be a 99 percent chance that this reservoir will never fail. I live in this basin. Would you like to go to sleep at night with your grandchildren knowing this potential disaster could happen at any moment? When you all go back to the safety of the cities and towns where you live, we will live with your plan forever.”

It’s not the first time a proposed reservoir that seemed like a good idea at the time to the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was perceived as a terrible idea by the people who live in the area.

In the summer of 1983, toxic algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee drew attention to the problem of high volumes of nutrient-rich water entering Lake Okeechobee. Three years later, the scientists and engineers proposed a plan that could have quickly and significantly cut nutrient loading to the lake.

On Aug. 23, 1986, Governor Bob Graham visited the area, accompanied by author and environmentalist Majorie Stoneman Douglas, to promote recommendations of the Lake Okeechobee Technical Advisory Committee (LOTAC). Those recommendations included a proposal to divert water from Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough to a 10,000-acre reservoir to be built in western Martin and St. Lucie counties.

At the time, Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough contributed only about 4 percent of the water entering Lake Okeechobee, but that water carried with it more than a quarter of the phosphorus loading to the lake. LOTAC recommended diverting that water to a reservoir to be used to irrigate orange groves. At the time, Martin County Extension Agent Bob Whitty expressed interest in the idea which would have provided water supply for the citrus groves. “On the surface, it looks like a good idea, but I’d like to know a little more about it,” he said in a September 1986 interview.

While it seemed like a good idea to the scientists and engineers and an interesting concept to citrus farmers, the plan drew immediate opposition from the landowners — who were not willing sellers — and from Martin County officials.

Martin County Commissioners sent letters to the governor, SFWMD, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Natural Resources opposing the reservoir.

Martin County residents in the area near the proposed reservoir site protested the proposal on safety concerns. It had only been 7 years since they learned first-hand what could happen if a reservoir dike failed. On Oct. 31, 1979, a section of an earthen dam around a 6,700 acre cooling pond at the Florida Power and Light plant in Indiantown gave way, leaving area farms and ranches under 5 feet of water. The estimated 20 billion gallons of water released covered 60 square miles and left an estimated $20 million in damages. If a 6,700 acre reservoir could do that much damage, they reasoned, what would happen if the dike on a 10,000 acre reservoir failed?

The Taylor Creek reservoir plan was not approved. However, Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) were built to help reduce the phosphorus load from Taylor Creek/Nubbin South, with the Taylor Creek STA north of the City of Okeechobee and the Lakeside Ranch STA in Martin County.

The SFWMD will host a public meetings on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project in Okeechobee today (Friday, Oct. 6) from 10 a.m. to noon, at the SFWMD Okeechobee Service Center, 3800 N.W. 16th Blvd., Suite A, Okeechobee.

The Oct. 6 meeting is a question-and-answer forum for landowners in the project’s footprint hosted by the South Florida Water Management District. As the SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers narrow down the project land selection process, the purpose of this event is to explain how the land acquisition process works, provide a timeline of pertinent milestones and answer landowners’ questions.

Landowners were previously notified by mail and invited to participate, as well as provide input at the public meetings.

The draft plan will be considered by the SFWMD Governing Board at the Oct. 12 business meeting.

At least one Glades County resident is lobbying for a site that puts a premium on public safety.

“I was working at pump station S-135 when the FPL Reservoir breached in 1979. I have seen what water can do when things go wrong. Reservoirs of this size need to be built in areas where it can dissipate over a broad area and not be trapped in a residential community,” stated Commissioner Stanley.

This map shows the Lake Okeechobee watershed.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment