Reservoir dogged by debate as session begins
January 17, 2018
SOUTH FLORIDA — Planning work on a reservoir to capture and store water overflowing from Lake Okeechobee and storm treatment areas to clean the water before it is sent south to the Everglades and Florida Bay continues as several groups oppose the plans presented last week to the Florida Legislature.
The issue? The reservoir plans being advanced by the South Florida Water Management District don’t provide for adequate treatment, according to Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.
His group has proposed a grander option, which would include a larger stormwater treatment area, but would also require about three times the acreage of the current proposals. He claims that eight scientists in his group’s employ have concluded that the plans SFWMD is advancing won’t work, and that the reservoir isn’t a reservoir at all, but rather a flow equalization basin that will be insufficient to meet high water quality standards while sending enough water south to make a positive impact on the complex South Florida ecosystem.
“In order to reduce the discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west by half, you have to have sufficient land to treat the water,” Eikenberg said. “None of it works. It’s a classic shell game. It’s moving the deck (chairs) around the Titanic.”
Those east and west discharges are the key aspect of the reservoir project, as the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries have been plagued in recent years by algal blooms and oyster bed die-offs due to discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. Florida Bay is in the midst of another algal bloom this year after a widespread 2015 seagrass die-off, which killed a reported 22,000 acres of meadows. Its blooms are spawned by high salinity that kills seagrass, which a steady infusion of clean freshwater could help prevent.
SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith says that the district has kept up with deadlines set by the state Legislature during what he describes as an open process that has benefited from a wealth of public input.
“The district is really proud of the work that was done,” Smith said. “We have not missed a deadline yet, and we don’t intend to.”
Senate Bill 10, passed early last year, focused the district on the reservoir project, which is a component of the larger Everglades restoration effort. Interpretations of the letter of the law vary, as SFWMD believes its hands are tied with respect to land acquisition to further expand the reservoir’s footprint. No eminent domain clause was part of the bill, ultimately signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.
“The senate bill specifically says you don’t have eminent domain,” Smith said. “You have to rely on willing sellers.”
SFWMD says 15 private landowners representing 80 percent of the acreage in the Everglades Agricultural Area where the reservoir will be built have put their lack of interest in selling in writing, and Smith says that many landowners were proactive, alerting the district to their wishes not long after the bill passed. Other landowners have been described as unresponsive.
Everglades Foundation and other groups have questioned SFWMD’s efforts to acquire land through other means, such as land swaps and the alteration of lease agreements. Eikenberg says that, for example, the Department of Corrections controls 4,000 acres of land that could be swapped, and that the land could be a viable spot for a stormwater treatment area.
A bigger concern for Eikenberg and others is the time frame the reservoir is planned to be constructed within. While planning has been expedited and a final report and funding request are due to be sent to Congress this year, with final congressional approval scheduled for 2019, completion of the project could be well over a decade away.
Eikenberg estimates that it could be 15 years before the reservoir is finally completed since SFWMD says other related projects must be built and operating first, calling that result “unconscionable.” While Smith is more optimistic, he offers no firm deadline for the completion of the project.
“It will be several years, I don’t know about 15. This is a massive project,” Smith said. “Maybe it will take 15 years. Our hopes would be that we get it in the ground sooner than that.”
It’s no secret that President Trump spends a large part of his schedule at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach and has a strong connection to Florida. It’s also no secret that his administration expects outgoing Gov. Scott to challenge longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson for his seat, and that political positioning has perhaps given Scott a good deal of influence with the administration.
Many suspect that influence likely had something to do with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announcement of his decision to make the Florida coastline off-limits to offshore oil drilling. That move miffed governors of other states with hundreds of miles of coastline, who wondered why Florida appeared to get special treatment. Nelson called the decision a “stunt” and filed legislation to make an offshore drilling ban permanent.
Could that signal openness in the administration to listen to state officials on Everglades restoration? State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, says that the relationship with current leadership can’t hurt with respect to federal approval later this year of whatever reservoir plan the Florida Legislature ultimately greenlights.
“I think it’s a fantastic trend,” Raschein said. “We’ve certainly done our part as a state; now we need them to step in. It’s a partnership.”
join the fray
The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association met last week with Captains for Clean Water, a Fort Myers-based group formed to lobby legislators and spread awareness about the impact of Everglades restoration on the fishing industry.
FKFGA Commodore Steve Friedman says that the meeting was held in part to educate guides on where the reservoir issue stands now. He says that the idea is to both “give a picture of what restoration is about” and organize in order to have input on the process.
“A lot of guides aren’t even aware of SB 10 or what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re not scientists.”
The complexities of the reservoir project and other restoration efforts continue to be debated among scientists, but what is clear to guides and others who make their living, at least in part, on Florida Bay is that algal blooms are common and the health of the bay has deteriorated over the years.
Friedman is among those who question SFWMD’s approach to the reservoir. He’s traveled to Tallahassee and Washington to lobby legislators while co-founding Florida Bay Forever, a local environmental group that has worked to influence the reservoir design and raises awareness about restoration issues.
“Science is telling me that we can do this better,” he said. “I would like the legislators to support the science.”
Despite skepticism about the reservoir ideas being offered for review, both Eikenberg and Friedman say that something is better than nothing with respect to the project’s construction.
“We need something,” Eikenberg said, though he remains frustrated by the process. “It baffles me why experts and career engineers wouldn’t roll up their sleeves based on this law. The clock is ticking.”
Friedman’s frustration is with some fellow guides and local business owners, who he says lack urgency or awareness on the issue and would rather avoid it entirely.
“It’s frustrating that guides and businesses don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “If you want to talk about sticking your head in the sand, they’re doing it.”
SFWMD recently released a report in which the agency says it “remains on track to deliver this study to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by March 30,” which is next in line to review the project after the Legislature. Eikenberg calls that statement “false, false, false,” while Friedman is more focused on the reservoir as a biblical struggle with the sugar industry, which owns much of the EAA land that a larger-scale reservoir could be built upon and has been cast as an environmental bogeyman for decades.
“It’s David vs. Goliath, and we are prepared to do what it takes to take down Goliath,” Friedman said.