Reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on accomplishments in the past year around Lake Okeechobee highlighted the agenda of the 16 County Lake Okeechobee Coalition meeting Sept 18.
Colonel Jason Kirk of the Army Corps, Commander of the Jacksonville District reported $102 million had been spent in fiscal year 2015 on the Herbert Hoover Dike. The Corps fiscal year 2016 requests include $59.52 million for the C-44 reservoir in Martin County and $16.96 million for the Kissimmee River restoration. The Corps just approved a $197 million contract for the C-44 project.
Tom Teets, Division Director for the SFWMD reported a total of 1,772 acres has been purchased for the Kissimmee River project in the past year.
He said construction of a storm water treatment area, discharge system and a pump station at the C-44 should be completed in 2018.
Phase one of the C-43 project in Hendry County is expected to store 90,000 acre feet of water. The state committed $18 million in 2015 for this project.
Commissioner Jack Ritchie of Highlands County said his county has some flooding problems. He said they try to emphasize cleaner storm water runoff. “That is one of our key issues right now,” he said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that nutrients must be reduced by 343 metric tons per year to meet TMDLs or total maximum daily loads for Lake Okeechobee. The DEP expects current projects like the Kissimmee restoration, water farming, and storm water treatment areas to reduce the nutrients by another 145 metric tons.
Okeechobee Commissioner Frank Irby praised ongoing best management practices in Okeechobee County. He said in Okeechobee county 279,000 acres use BMPs.
Mr. Irby said the agriculture community also has reduced the use of fertilizers through GPS and more precise farming. “Agriculture is very focused on improving the water quality in our area,” he added.
Commissioner Sarah Heard of Martin County praised the work done on C-44 and the work of the Corps of Engineers,
“The coalition is extremely powerful,” she said. “Our strategy to focus on a small number of critical projects has been successful. All our projects were funded at the federal level.”
She said she was saddened by the recent resignation of Blake Guillory, the Executive Director at the SFWMD, and praised the job he did.
The DEP funding priorities for 2016 includes $16.9 million for the Lake Hicpochee North Hydrologic Enhancement Project in Glades County. $25 million has been requested for projects like the Brighton Valley storm water storage and treatment project and for Phase II of the Lakeside Ranch STA.
St. Lucie County Commissioner Frannie Hutchison reported that county has budgeted $70 million in storm water projects in the 2016 fiscal year.
Hendry County Commissioner Carson Turner said he had concerns about the change in leadership at the SFWMD. He said he wants the policy of moving dirt and building projects to continue. He also encouraged the counties to send representatives to Washington, D.C. on October 21 when they lobby legislators.
Col. Kirk said he wants to continue momentum on current projects. He said the focus should be on accomplishments. He said the Kissimmee River restoration is about 86 percent complete with only two contracts left to approve.
The 2016 budget proposal also includes $64.14 million for the dike. He said 22 miles of dike has been improved so far with six miles being worked on now between Belle Glade and Lake Harbor. Last week the Corps approved a $49 million to replace a water control structure north of Canal Point. A draft dam safety modification study report on the dike is expected to be released for public review and comment before Thanksgiving.
The coalition set the continued repairs of the Herbert Hoover dike as their top federal priority this year. The Kissimmee River Restoration was ranked second and the C-44 reservoir was ranked third.
Their top priorities for the Florida State Legislature include support for the Governors environmental budget, state funding for the Kissimmee River and money for projects the benefit the Indian River Lagoon.
Dr. Paul Gray of the Audubon Society of Florida saluted the work to send 1 foot of Lake Okeechobee water south into water retention areas last year. He said money was spent to purchase pumps that allowed the water to be pumped into these areas.
Martha Musgrove of the Florida Wildlife Federation said the coalition should lobby to insist the legislature uses Amendment I dollars strictly for the purchase of land and land management.
Mark Perry with the Florida Oceanographic Society said 1 million acre feet of water storage is needed north of Lake Okeechobee. He said there is no study planned for this storage until 2020 and construction might not be complete to 2025 or later. He praised the water management district for sending more water south but worried that an El Nino affect could raise the level of Lake Okeechobee considerably this winter.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News