Everglades expert: Reservoir to curb discharges won't clean water; should SFWMD redesign?
Here's why that Lake O reservoir is necessary. DACIA JOHNSON/TCPALM Wochit
An Everglades expert at Florida Gulf Coast University says the proposed reservoir to cut Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers needs "dramatic redesign" or it could pollute Everglades National Park.
And noting Florida's new governor, the new board and executive team at the South Florida Water District and President Donald Trump's commitment to invest in Everglades restoration, William J. Mitsch, director of the school's Everglades Wetland Research Park, said now's the time to make the project bigger and better.
"If ever there was a time for an ecological engineering and not just civil engineering approaches to lead Everglades restoration, it is now," Mitsch wrote in an article published July 31 in the journal Ecological Engineering.
Now is not the time to delay the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, countered Randy Smith, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.
Redesigning the project and getting it approved by all the state and federal agencies that have to be on board "could take years," Smith said. "And that would be a disservice to the people along the estuaries who need the relief this project will provide as soon as possible."
As designed by the district's engineers, the project includes a 10,100-acre, 78.2 billion gallon reservoir to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers. The reservoir should be completed in about eight years, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, deputy commander for Florida, told TCPalm in June.
A 6,500-acre man-made marsh designed to clean water leaving the reservoir will be built by the South Florida Water Management District and should be completed before 2024, Smith said.
The district and the Corps are splitting the $1.8 billion cost of the project.
When used in conjunction with other existing and planned projects, the reservoir is expected to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the river estuaries, where the nutrient- and algae-laden water can cause toxic blue-green algae blooms, by 63 percent.
The project also will send about 121 billion gallons of water a year south. Mitsch said the 6,500 acres of man-made wetlands, known as stormwater treatment areas or STAs, are "grossly insufficient to protect the Everglades."
Mitsch estimates at least 43,000 acres of wetlands are needed to treat the water flowing south and recommended 100,000 acres be set aside for treatment wetlands to make doubly sure water is clean enough.
Related link: Read Mitsch's review of the EAA reservoir
The original proposal by Florida Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart called for the project to stretch over 60,000 acres south of Lake O. That was met by fierce opposition by landowners, and none agreed to sell land to the district for it.
So the project had to be built on about 17,000 acres already owned by the state.
"We came up with a plant that's going to work very well on the land we had to work with," Smith said. "This project has been planned and designed using sound science. It's been scrutinized by the Army Corps of Engineers, the (federal) Environmental Protection Agency and Congress. It's been peer reviewed and peer reviewed again."
Mitsch's objections, he added, "are just one man's opinion."
When the project's design was first made public, several environmental groups said the water-cleaning component was too small. The Everglades Foundation came up with an alternative plan, but it required getting 10,000 more acres.
Now the nonprofit supports the district's plan as-is. CEO Eric Eikenberg said Wednesday water-cleaning marshes already built south of Lake O and the one to be built as part of the reservoir project "are sufficient to clean water and send it south."
The focus, Eikenberg said, "ought to be on making sure this project is built as designed in a handful of years. Everything needs to move forward, and we need to stop playing parlor games with academic papers."
Find out what the Army Corps is doing to battle the algae problem in Lake Okeechobee. Andrea Melendez, Fort Myers News-Press