Work begins on EAA reservoir project

OKEECHOBEE — On Wednesday, Nov. 14, the South Florida Water Management District began work on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir, as heavy equipment began clearing 560 acres of sugar cane.

Site preparation work for the future Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir began Wednesday on 560 acres of former sugar cane fields. After it is cleared, the site will be used to stockpile rocks in preparation for the construction project. Photo by Katrina Elsken Lake Okeechobee News.

“We are moving at lightning speed while fulfilling all the requirements of state law because we know how important this project is to the residents we serve,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez. “Many times, it can take years to build restoration projects due to unforeseen obstacles and delays. Today, heavy equipment is moving and construction is underway to deliver the reservoir Florida has promised to its taxpayers as soon as possible.”

On Nov. 8, the SFWMD Governing Board approved an eight-year lease with Florida Crystals on 16,150 acres of state land in the footprint of the future site of the EAA reservoir. After 20 months, SFWMD can terminate the lease with four months’ notice, if SFWMD is ready to start construction of the reservoir. The agreement immediately terminated the lease on 560 acres of state land, so that SFWMD could start some site work before the design work for the reservoir even begins. The lease with Florida Crystals was due to expire in March 2019.

By making the change Nov. 8, SFWMD was able to take advantage of the dry season to start work immediately.

“Delay is not an option,” said Mr. Fernandez.

“We are dependent on Mother Nature. We’re in the dry season. Every day that we’re not out here is a day we don’t move forward,” he explained.

SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks said the weather forecast is for an El Nino system with above average rainfall. By starting work to clear the 560 acres immediately, they will have more time to mine, move and stockpile rocks before the rains come.

Design work for the massive reservoir project will start as soon as the federal government appropriates the funding. The EAA reservoir plan has been approved by Congress and signed by the president. It awaits a funding allocation. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated design and engineering will take about three years. SFWMD officials optimistically hope the design and engineering work can be completed sooner, so the lease was written to make it possible to cancel the lease in two years.

The reservoir will cover 10,100 acres, with a berm of 30 to 40 feet high, about as high as the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir will be partnered with a new 6,500 acre storm water treatment area (STA). The project will add 240,000 acre feet of water storage capacity to the system – about 78 billion gallons, the equivalent of 6.5 inches of water on Lake Okeechobee. Paired with the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), it will move more water from Lake Okeechobee south to Everglades National Park.

According to SFWMD Chief Engineer John Mitnik, it will take about 20 to 30 days for the heavy equipment to clear the 560 acres. He said all of the material for the project will be mined on-site. SFWMD will conduct geotechnical studies to determine the best sites to mine material.

“Large infrastuctures like this one take a long time to design,” said Eva Velez, SFWMD Director of Everglades Policy. She said the reservoir will take about five years to build. In the meantime, leasing the land for farming until construction begins will bring in about $1 million a year. Keeping agriculture on the land also manages the land, which prevents problems with invasive plants. Removing agriculture and allowing the land to go fallow before construction starts would impede the project progress, she explained.

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