EAA reservoir alone won’t stop discharges

OKEECHOBEE — If only …

If only former Governor Charlie Crist had not pursued a grand plan to purchase 187,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for $1.7 billion, the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir would have already been built.

Back in 2004, then-Governor Jeb Bush wanted to do something to speed up the work on Everglades restoration. His Acceler-8 plan funded eight major projects — including an EAA reservoir. Acceler-8 also included the C-43 reservoir on the Caloosahatchee River and the C-44 reservoir on the C-44 canal that connects with Lake Okeechobee at Port Mayaca and empties into the St. Lucie river.

“By accelerating the funding, design and construction of these projects, the Everglades will experience positive benefits much sooner … and in a more cost-effective manner. As opposed to the ‘pay as you go’ approach, taxpayer dollars needed for construction will be significantly leveraged. The South Florida Water Management District will finance project construction with ‘Certificates of Participation’ revenue bonding. Financing and fast-tracking these projects NOW helps avoid the inevitable increases in construction materials and labor costs,” explained a 2004 SFWMD press release.

Clewiston residents remember the sound of blasting as work started on the EAA reservoir. And they remember when it stopped after a group of environmental organizations had filed a lawsuit about the reservoir.

According to a SFWMD report “In 2007, environmental organizations sued to stop construction of a large EAA reservoir. These groups objected stating that the District was accelerating restoration beyond the government’s ability to keep up. The district suspended construction of this large EAA reservoir in 2008, and the environmental organizations dropped their lawsuit.” At recent public meetings, representatives of the environmental groups said they did not oppose the reservoir, but wanted the government to ensure the water stored would be used for environmental purposes, and not for water supply for urban and agricultural areas. Under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the EAA reservoir is for both environmental restoration and water supply.

Then Governor Crist had unveiled his River of Grass plan. The state could not afford both the River of Grass purchase and the EAA reservoir work. The governor’s new project took precedence. The EAA reservoir project was no longer a priority. The state had to pay the construction company around $25 million in penalties and fines for breaking the contract.

The A-1 property was converted to shallow storage.

As the SFWMD’s new plans to build the EAA reservoir that original reservoir plan often comes up in meeting discussions.

If only that reservoir construction had been completed, some argue, the massive freshwater releases could have been avoided. According to the SFWMD data, they’re wrong.

If only that reservoir had been built … it would have made little difference in the freshwater discharges to the coastal estuaries.

The reservoir alone is static storage. During the rainy season it will quickly fill up. At the start of the wet season in 2017, the rains south of the lake were heavier than the rains in the northern basins. While the lake levels were below 12 ft., the water conservation areas were so full from direct rainfall that billions of gallons of water had to be backpumped into Lake Okeechobee. (The backpumped water was clean water from the water conservation areas — not water from the EAA.) If the EAA reservoir had been in place last summer, it would have been full long before Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, bringing with it enough rain raise the lake level more than 3 feet.

The rainfall data includes that if the EAA reservoir had already been in place … we would have had the same discharges east and west as we did without it.

The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) includes the projects that are key unclogging the system and restoring the flow to Everglades National Park.

Search for the truth about Lake Okeechobee

Without CEPP, the water stacks up in the water conservation areas because it is blocked to the south by the Tamiami Trail and it is blocked to the east by the East Coast Protection Levee. And when there is no more room in the water conservation areas, no lake water can be released south. In wet years, the water conservation areas fill up quickly with direct rainfall.

Even the Everglades Foundation has endorsed CEPP, calling it “is the first restoration project that can be implemented now to yield improvements on a regional scale,” on their website.

According to the SFWMD website, CEPP is a $1.9 billion slate of storage and conveyance projects on land already in public ownership south of Lake Okeechobee. The southern components of this plan will allow additional water to be directed south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay and provide additional opportunity to reduce releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. CEPP is congressionally authorized and awaiting funding.

As with all of the Everglades projects, funding is the key.

If only …

What happened to Acceler8?

In 2004, the Acceler8 program, under the administration of Governor Jeb Bush, “stepped up the pace” on eight restoration projects. The original plan was for all of these projects to be completed by 2011. After Governor Charlie Crist took office, he promoted his own River of Grass plan, which involved purchasing land from U.S. Sugar, plans changed.
What has happened to the “Acceler8” projects since? As often happens with Everglades projects, funding delays have meant project delays.

Reviewing the eight projects on the Acceler8 list”

• C-43 (Caloosahatchee River) West Reservoir: According to the South Florida Water Management District, this project is currently funded and scheduled for completion in 2022. Preloading and demolition work has been on-going since 2015 with the large construction contracts recently issued and another (the dam) scheduled to be issued this year.

• Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir with Bolles & Cross Canals Improvements: The SFWMD is well into construction of the first half of the Bolles and Cross Canals improvements with design underway for the second half of the project. The EAA reservoir project is planned under 2017 Senate Bill 10. SFWMD has presented their recommendations to the Florida Legislature, and if all goes well it should go to the Assistant Secretary of the Army by the end of March. Best case scenario, the project could be funded in 2019. Design is expected to take 3 years and construction another 5 years. Design will not start until the federal matching funds are appropriated. SFWMD’s recommendations are for land that is already in state ownership. Termination notices have been sent to lease holders for property that is state-owned that has been leased out for farming. Since the project construction won’t start for more than three years at best, SFWMD anticipates no issues with timing of the lease terminations.

• Everglades Agricultural Area Stormwater Treatment Area Expansion: Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West Expansion construction is ongoing and is expected to be complete by December 2018 (4,300 acres of effective treatment areas).

• Picayune Strand (Southern Golden Gate Estates) Restoration: The project is nearing final completion having reestablished natural sheetflow to nearly all of the 55,000 acre Picayune Strand. The project included construction of 3 pump stations with spreader canals, plugging 40 miles of canals and removing 227 miles of roads.

• C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) Reservoir / Stormwater Treatment Area: SFWMD completed land acquisition and design for the C-44 Reservoir and STA component. The USACE completed the first phase of construction, which includes the intake canal, and began work on the 3,400 acre reservoir in late 2015. The SFWMD is well into construction of the 6,300 acre STA and pump station with complete construction expected later this year.

• Water Preserve Areas (Includes Site 1 Impoundment, C-9 Impoundment, C-11 Impoundment, Acme Basin B Discharge, WCA-3A/3B Seepage Management)
The SFWMD, with cost-share contributions from the U.S. Department of Interior, has acquired the necessary lands for the project. A Project Partnership Agreement between SFWMDE and the USACE was executed in August 2016. Construction of the North Mitigation Area is scheduled to start this year.

• Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands – Phase 1
This project was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 2014. SFWMD completed construction and began operation of the Deering Estate Flow-Way component. Four of the ten culverts planned for the east component have been completed. A Project Partnership Agreement between the USACE and SFWMD was executed in 2016 with a permanent pump station to be completed by the USACE.

• C-111 Spreader Canal: SFWMD constructed a majority of the project features in early 2012 and has been operating these continuously once testing was complete in June 2012. To obtain credit for funds expended by the district, a Project Partnership Agreement needs to be executed which requires federal appropriations.

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

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