Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Lake ‘O’ Reservoir…Is It Still a Go?

Stepping Stones

For several years there has been talk, and hope, that a reservoir would be built to alleviate the releases of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. These discharges constantly bring unwanted nutrients from the lake which flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, having a negative, and sometimes deadly, effect on our plant and animal life.

As early as the year 2000, when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program was passed, plans have been designed, changed and redesigned to help establish a much-needed flow of water back into the Everglades. As we approach 2019, 18 years of a 30-year project have flown by and just recently a plan to send that water south was enacted… or was it?

There are a lot of players in the game of water dispersal. You have state government, federal government, the Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District, politicians on several levels, environmentalists and, of course, Big Business. It’s easy to see that decisions can become quite complicated.

The positive stroke of the pen came just before the November elections. As a final step for the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, the Senate approved a reservoir to hold Lake Okeechobee overflow and that was signed by our President. State-owned land in Palm Beach County would help capture, clean and send waters to the Everglades and potentially reduce or eliminate the blue-green algae that has been experienced for nearly a year.

The need for one or more reservoirs has been obvious for many years. Lake O covers about 730 square miles. If a “comfort water level” of 10 feet deep is tolerable, you can imagine the additional weight of water against the walls of the lake when summer rains push the water level to 15 feet. That’s a lot of pressure and, to prevent these walls from collapsing, water is released into our tributaries.

There have been times of drought when a rainfall of 10 to 20 inches might be a welcome relief to fill the Lake. However, this past fall the level sat at nearly 15 feet and an additional rainfall similar to that during dry times could push the dike to a critical point and potential bursting if releases were not allowed. If the dike were to erode, it would place surrounding communities in danger of flooding.

Until one or more reservoirs are built these releases are necessary. Without treatment, the lake’s fresh water dilutes the salinity of the water in our rivers to cause algae blooms. Reservoirs would allow the Lake releases to be filtered and the clean water would now be directed to the thirsty Everglades environment. The amount of water from the Lake going into our tributaries could be reduced by as much as 60%.

As mentioned the Senate and the President signed off on a reservoir to be constructed just south and west of Lake O. Right after the elections, this happened. The Southwest Florida Water Management District extended the lease on the land to be used for the reservoir to the current users. The user will be the previous lessee New Hope Sugar, a division of Florida Crystals.

Their current lease was not due to expire until March 2019. Why it was renewed four months early stirs a bit of controversy. The proposed lease agreement was posted on the Water District’s website and voted on with little notice to the public. Some argue that this is a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws by not giving proper notice and review time to the public. Rushing the agreement through, in some opinions, makes it look suspicious.

The lease would create about $1 million in revenue for the State for the next eight years. Since the current lease does not expire until next March it is possible that the lessee might not allow work to begin on the project until that time, pushing a workload that could have taken place in the dry season now into the rainy season.

I am told that the reservoir will be allowed on the land as part of the lease. It will take nine to 10 years to complete, once started, and will include 16,158 acres.

The 23-foot deep, 10,000 acre reservoir will store up to 78 billion gallons of excess water. A 6,500-acre manmade marsh will clean and filter the water before it is sent south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Runoff to the Saint Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers could, as mentioned, reduce releases to these tributaries by 60%.

There are high hopes that no further delays will take place and at least one reservoir and marsh will help restore the Everglades and decrease water releases to our rivers. Because of the suggested Sunshine Law violations, there is a potential for a lawsuit. A lengthy legal battle could be worse than allowing the project to proceed. Time will tell.

Bob is a Naturalist studying the habits and genealogy of our local dolphins on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is a member of the Florida Society for Ethical Ecotourism and the author of two books, available locally. Bob loves his wife very much!

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