October 31, 2018

SOUTH FLORIDA — Having secured federal authorization, Florida Bay and Everglades advocates now turn their focus to securing money and slashing the timeline for the $1.6 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

“We’d like to see dirt moving by late next year,” Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation, said Friday.

President Donald Trump signed the “America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018” on Oct. 23, after both chambers of the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted for it.

Included among the act’s array of national water development projects is authorization for the massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Yet to be confirmed is the federal appropriation of funding for the water storage area.

“This probably should have happened 25 years ago, but we’ll take it as a win,” said Elizabeth Jolin, a founder of the Florida Bay Forever group based in the Florida Keys. “Our community is concerned since [Congress] has not appropriated the money. Our work is not done and we need to remain vigilant.”

State and federal agencies estimated that building the 10,500-acre reservoir, 23 feet deep, and a 6,500 water-treatment marsh may take 10 years or more.

“Let’s get it built in four years, not 10 or 15,” Eikenberg said. “If the Army Corps of Engineers can repair the Mosul Dam in one year, this should not take another decade. … That same agency can build a big ditch to get water moving south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.”

Florida Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart, who worked to commit the state’s $800 million share of the reservoir cost, made a similar comparison.

“The Empire State Building was built in one year and 45 days,” Negron said in a statement. “I still have confidence in American ingenuity and resourcefulness. A groundbreaking this fall is in order. Let’s get it done. The nearly 21 million residents of Florida do not want to hear weak excuses about why earlier generations of Americans could apparently solve problems and accomplish goals without tedious procrastination.”

A sugar company now holds the lease on the state-owned land that will become the reservoir. The lease expires in March 2019, Eikenberg said.

“We would like to see some temporary [water] storage in there by April,” he said.

Once the Nov. 6 congressional elections have been decided, Everglades conservationists can “start identifying who are our allies in the key appropriations committees,” Eikenberg said.

The Everglades Foundation was founded in 1993 by Islamorada resident George Barley, who became alarmed at the declining water quality in Florida Bay caused by disruption in the natural freshwater flow through the Everglades. Barley was killed in a 1995 airplane crash while flying to a meeting on the Everglades.

A lack of fresh water triggered Florida Bay seagrass die-offs in the 1980s and in 2015. Dead seagrass then fed blue-green algae blooms that harmed marine life.

“Implementing Everglades restoration projects like the EAA reservoir is the antidote the ecosystem needs,” Celeste De Palma, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy, said.

High water levels in Lake Okeechobee from heavy rains cause the nutrient-tainted water to be flushed through canals to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie coastal estuaries, resulting in major algal blooms. The reservoir will allow some of that water to be sent south for storage and cleaning before being released into the Everglades.

“Nutrients feed putrid, blue-green guacamole-like goo that kills fish and wildlife alike, sickens humans and as many have observed, smells like death itself,” Eikenberg wrote to U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

“With the estuaries along the Florida coasts in danger, I think people will stay involved,” Jolin said.

Both Florida U.S. senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, supported passage of the water-resources act.

kwadlow@keysnews.com