December 27, 2017

SOUTH FLORIDA — Tensions involving a proposed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee designed to alleviate pollution concerns and send water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay were palpable at an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir meeting hosted by the South Florida Water Management District last Thursday.

At issue is the size and potential effectiveness of the reservoir along with the amount of land necessary to complete the project. Environmental groups have expressed concern that the current models aren’t adequate enough to meet the “optimal configuration” requirement laid out in Senate Bill 10, passed earlier this year by the Florida Legislature to enable the expedited construction of the reservoir, whose purpose is to store water from Lake Okeechobee that would otherwise be discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Others who live in areas that may be affected by the acquisition of more land for the reservoir say that the plan is a ruse sprung by environmental groups and “coastal elites” after the bill’s passage in order to punish their longtime rival, the sugar industry, which owns much of the EAA property an expanded reservoir would be built on.

SB 10 did not include an eminent domain clause, meaning that any further land acquired by SFWMD would have to come via willing sellers, willing land swap partners or adjustments made to current leases held by the state, many of which are set to expire in 2019.

SFWMD has presented four reservoir models, two of which are designed to store 240,000 acre-feet of freshwater from the lake, while the other two would hold 360,000 acre-feet. Their costs range from $1.42 billion to $1.95 billion. SB 10 calls for project spending to be capped at $1.6 billion. All four include stormwater treatment areas to filter the water; the only difference is where those treatment areas would be located.

In conjunction with other Everglades restoration projects, the EAA reservoir could reduce harmful discharges to the estuaries upwards of 54 percent in comparison to existing conditions, according to SFWMD officials.

Each proposal is expected to achieve the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan goal of delivering an annual average of 98 billion gallons of clean water south to the Everglades, they said.

Those models aren’t adequate in the minds of many environmental groups, and Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, an environmental lobbying group that has been involved with Everglades restoration issues for decades, recently sent a letter to SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks that included another reservoir proposal.

That proposal calls for a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir featuring a stormwater treatment area that would sit on 30,000 acres of EAA land at a depth of 14 feet. Both SFWMD proposals at 240,000 acre-feet call for a reservoir 18 feet in depth.

While the differences may seem subtle, SFWMD’s 240,000 acre-foot reservoir and STA would only use a 10,100-acre footprint, nearly a third of the Everglades Foundation proposal.

That proposal would call for the SFWMD to acquire more land via land swaps or lease modifications, which the district has indicated it is pursuing. But because a reservoir project update is due on Jan. 9, the first day of next year’s legislative session, time is a resource that is in short supply.

Eikenberg wrote in his letter to Marks that despite the breadth of his organization’s model, it’s the best hope to preserve the Everglades and Florida Bay while keeping other estuaries fed by Lake Okeechobee clean.

“(Our concept) is in keeping with the letter and spirit of SB 10, which is to present a plan that maximizes benefits to the estuaries, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and Florida Bay,” Eikenberg wrote.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who pushed SB 10 through a resistant Legislature, also wrote to Marks recently. While crediting the district for its work on the reservoir, he also worries about the reservoir meeting the “optimal configuration” standard laid out in the bill.

“I have a concern that the initial modeling may be unnecessarily constrained by using a limited footprint,” Negron wrote, adding that if the district needs “to be flexible with the footprint to put an effective reservoir plan into action, I hope it will consider using any additional land available.”

As SFWMD works to meet legislative deadlines while balancing concerns about a potentially inadequate reservoir against those who fear that further reservoir footprint negotiation amounts to a land grab, public meetings continue. The next board meeting is Jan. 11, two days after the legislative session gets underway.

The district has not indicated that it is considering any reservoir proposal outside of the four it has presented.