February 7, 2018

SOUTH FLORIDA — The clock is ticking for the South Florida Water Management District to choose between one of five reservoir options to satisfy the intent of Senate Bill 10, passed last year to expedite the design and construction of a reservoir system purposed to store and clean overflow from Lake Okeechobee then send the water south. 

To prevent pollutant-laden lake discharges from fouling the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries while sending treated clean, freshwater to the Everglades and Florida Bay, SFWMD engineers have worked on an aggressive timeline to come up with an option that’s up to the task while being limited by the amount of land available for the project.

After months of modeling reservoir and stormwater treatment area options, the district has determined that two of the options are the most likely to deliver maximum performance considering the land, cost and other limitations on the scope of the project. SFWMD director Ernie Marks is scheduled to go before the board Thursday, Feb. 8, to present what his staff has determined is the plan that should be recommended to the state Legislature before ultimately going before Congress in October of this year.

That’s according to SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith, who confirmed that Marks is set to make his pitch to the board Thursday after the director had said during presentations to the Florida Legislature last month that his announcement would be made by Jan. 31.

The plan is due by March 30, the last day of this year’s legislative session. What’s on the table is a reservoir that will either be 23 feet deep and take up 10,100 acres of land, or a reservoir that is 18 feet deep and is spread over 19,100 acres of land. The first also calls for a 6,500 acre stormwater treatment area to clean the water, while the second proposes 11,500 acres. Marks has said that he wants to combine the most effective aspects of the first option, a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir, and the second, which would be 360,000 acre-feet. 

These “best buy” options are $1.34 billion and $1.71 billion, respectively. 

Those configurations don’t do enough to treat water before it is sent south, according to Everglades Foundation ecologist Tom Van Lent. The organization has presented a plan for a 300,000 acre-foot reservoir that includes 13,000 acres for stormwater treatment, which Lent says is crucial to make sure the reservoir provides enough filtration to clean the water before it flows through the system.

“We’re very concerned,” Van Lent said of the acreage dedicated to stormwater treatment in SFWMD’s current plans. “The concern is that we may be adding polluted water to the Everglades.”

Van Lent also questions whether the plans are robust enough to handle the increased water flow the system will be taking on, saying that the district may be too “optimistic” about the effectiveness of the designs being considered.

He does have good news for those calling for increased freshwater flow to Florida Bay. While Marks recently described the increase in flow to the southern estuary “modest” at a meeting of the state House Natural Resources and Public Lands Subcommittee last month, Van Lent expects flows ultimately to increase by 30 percent, which he says “is as far as you can push” the system to send more water to the bay.

It seems unlikely that SFWMD would add another plan to those being considered now due to the aggressive timeline and swiftly approaching deadline to present a plan for approval. Thursday’s board meeting will be one of the last times the public is able to comment on the reservoir plans before they move into the Legislature’s sphere of influence.

Van Lent summarized the push to optimize the reservoir as a balance between increased flow and satisfactory treatment of pollutants and reiterated that Florida Bay should see real benefits when — and if — the reservoir is finally built.

“Florida Bay is my backyard, and I want to see it improved,” he said. “The flows they’re proposing look very positive for the Everglades and Florida Bay, but we have a concern about the water quality. We’re trying to find a way that does both.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com