Wetlands project proposed north of lake

OKEECHOBEE — A shallow reservoir and increased wetlands are proposed just north of Lake Okeechobee adjacent to the Kissimmee River in Glades County.

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project LOWRP) includes a Wetland Attenuation Feature with a footprint of approximately 12,500 acres, 80 Aquifer Storage and Recover (ASR) wells, restoration of the Paradise Run wetland and restoration of the Kissimmee River Center wetland, according to a presentation made to area landowners June 18 at the Williamson Center at the Indian River State College Dixon Hendry Campus in Okeechobee.

Brandon Tucker, a member of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, said “there is a need for storage north of the lake because we have to take care of Lake Okeechobee.

“This is somewhat personal a little for me,” Mr. Tucker continued, explaining that some of the people who own the land within the proposed project footprint are people he has known his whole life.

He said he can only support the project if “I am completely at peace with what we are going to do here.”

Mr. Tucker said based on the information he has so far, he believes the tentatively selected plan is the best plan that has been presented to date.

“It’s a plan I would support for a variety of reasons,” he said.

This is a federal project, a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) program, a federal program with the Corps of Engineers and SFWMD is the local sponsor,” explained Jennifer Leeds, SFWMD Section Administrator Everglades Policy and Coordination.

She said LOWRP projects will benefit lake Okeechobee and also reduce harmful releases from the lake to the coastal estuaries.

The site for the projects were restricted to the boundaries of CERP, she explained.

“We look at storage features that could be sited in these boundaries, Ms. Leeds said.

Proximity to the Kissimmee River and to Lake Okeechobee were also factors.

She said the goals of LOWRP are to improve the quantity timing and distribution of flows coming into the lake, to maintain ecologically desired lake stage ranges more often, to benefit fish and wildlife habitat around the lake, to reduce the estuary discharges from the lake and to provide water supply.

LOWRP includes 80 ASR wells which would be located on right-of-way SFWMD already controls. These wells, which would have a footprint of less than half an acre per cluster, could provide 488,000 acre-feet of storage per year. (An acre foot is the amount of water to cover one acre of land, one foot deep.)

“It is important for us to co-locate the ASR wells with an above-ground lake feature,” she said. “Having a feature that is situated right adjacent to the lake allows us to pull water off the lake and put it in the storage area.”

She said water could be pumped into the shallow storage area from the river or from the lake.

Water would also be pumped from the river onto the wetlands areas, giving the plants in the wetlands the opportunity to remove some of the nutrients from the water, and then returned to the river.

She said using land close to the lake makes the projects most efficient, and thus the best buy for the taxpayers.

Ms. Leeds added that they did not want to do anything to disturb the Kissimmee River Restoration work that is already underway, so areas near the river farther north were not considered as good options.

“When we get into drought times, instead of having water cutbacks, the ASRs will allow us to put water back into the lake,” she continued.

She said the plans have taken seepage concerns and locations of endangered species into consideration.

The 12,500 wetland attenuation feature would hold water 1 ft. to 4 ft. deep, she said.

The L-shaped project footprint would be about a quarter mile off State Road 78, leaving the frontage on SR 78 in private ownership.

LOWRP map

If the project is approved by the SFWMD board, land acquisition, including appraisals and negotiations to buy the land could begin in 2022.

She said the first opportunity to ask Congress for funding will be in the Water Resources Development Act in 2020.

“Even though we aren’t in position to start buying land or start exchanging land, we’re close,” said Ray Palmer with the SFWMD Real Estate section. “When it is your land, you want to know as much as you can as soon as you can. Next year, we can start talking to people about possible land exchanges,” he said, explaining that they will offer to trade land owners for land the district owns that is not needed for this project or other projects.

“We would like to get to know you better, find out what your desires are before we get to the point where we are going to send out a letter and let you know we are appraising your property for acquisition,” he said.

“We feel this is the best project we have right now that is actually going to provide some benefit to the lake,” said Ms. Leeds.

The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir has benefits to decrease estuary discharges, she continued. “This one has benefit to the lake.”

See Landowners question LOWRP plan, for local comments on the projected wetlands. https://okeechobeenews.net/community-news/landowners-question-lowrp-plan/.

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

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