Everglades Foundation: SFWMD reservoir to cut discharges won't clean water; ours does

Tyler Treadway
Treasure Coast Newspapers

Claiming none of the South Florida Management District's options for a reservoir to cut Lake Okeechobee discharges properly cleans water before sending it south, the Everglades Foundation has come up with a plan of its own.

But the foundation's proposal would require getting more than 10,000 acres through swaps with landowners near the reservoir site. That could be tough, as the district said it hasn't found any willing sellers or swappers.

Look harder, said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

State-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee.

Keep it clean

The reservoir project is supposed to keep excess Lake O water from being discharged to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, where it causes environmental and economic harm, and send the water to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, where it's desperately needed.

District scientists and engineers have developed five variations for the project, all with reservoirs to hold water and man-made marshes to clean it and all using land the state already owns.

More: District reveals options for reservoir project

None of the district's options have marshes, known as stormwater treatment areas, large enough to clean the water enough to meet stringent federal standards, said Thomas Van Lent, the foundation's director of science and policy.

The foundation's plan includes a 13,000-acre stormwater treatment area; the largest in the district's plans is 11,500 acres.

In a question-and-answer video made for the project's website, Matt Morrison, the district federal policy coordination chief, said the computer modeling required by the state Legislature shows all the district's project options meet federal water quality requirements.

"The first thing we do is make sure we size the stormwater treatment area adequately," district hydrology chief Akin Owosina said in the same video. "Then we size the reservoir after."

All of the proposals by the district would help curtail Lake O discharges.

When combined with other projects already in the works, the reservoir would "basically get rid of all small and moderate discharge events," Walter Wilcox, the district's chief modeling engineer, said at a Dec. 13 public hearing on the project.

More: District touts reservoir results, crowd asks for more

And in particularly heavy discharge years — such as the hurricane years of 2002 to 2005 — the flow would be reduced by about 45 percent, Wilcox said.

Got land?

The foundation's plan would require getting about 13,000 acres for the project by swapping up to 20,000 acres of state-owned land scattered throughout the farmland south of the lake with privately owned land adjacent to the reservoir site.

The district "solicited landowners" around the reservoir site, Executive Director Ernie Marks wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to Florida Senate President Joe Negron. Not all responded, but the "responses we have received, in general, have not identified willing sellers relevant to this project."

Marks promised the district would "take advantage of opportunities such as purchases or swaps of state lands should those opportunities present themselves."

Eikenberg's reply: "The district sent out letters. That's not enough. What they need to do is to get the landowners in a room and say, 'Let's make this happen.'"

Negotiating the land swaps "doesn't have to happen tomorrow," Eikenberg said. The district has tight deadlines to get the project approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress, but that can proceed before all the land is acquired.

Most of the privately held land around the project site is owned by Florida Crystals. Company officials did not reply to phone calls and emailed requests for comment.

The foundation didn't approach Florida Crystals about a swap, Van Lent said. "The role of the (district) is to acquire the land for the project," he said.

The district can't take land for the project by eminent domain, according to the state law authorizing the reservoir.

"I would certainly hope and expect that the district would consider footprint proposals from all interested citizens and parties, including the Everglades Foundation," Negron said in an email Tuesday.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron speaks to a room of community members in a pop-up event at Ground Floor Farm in Stuart on Monday, June 5, 2017. The main topic of discussion for the night was the passage of the plan to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges, known as Senate Bill 10. "The bill absolutely establishes about 100 billion gallons of storage south of Lake Okeechobee; it instructs the water management district on a very accelerated schedule to start identifying the footprint that we want," Negron said. "And, most importantly, the entire project is completely funded. Nothing else has to happen; no bill has to pass; no budget has to pass. The $800 million of the state commitment to this project is bonded, it's fully funded, and the bill has been signed into law by the governor."

More: Negron tells SFWMD to spread reservoir onto more land if necessary

'Sleeping bear'

Three of the water district's five options for the reservoir project call for using the 16,500 acres of state-owned land known as the A-1 parcel.

But that land already has been made into a shallow reservoir as part of a program called Restoration Strategies the state and federal governments agreed to in order to meet a federal court ruling that water coming off farmland south of Lake O be clean enough to send to Everglades National Park — just like water coming out of the reservoir will have to be.

The Everglades Foundation proposal doesn't take any land in the A-1 parcel.

"Why in the world would you mess with Restoration Strategies?" Eikenberg asked. "It's working, and it's ordered by a federal judge. Leave a sleeping bear asleep."

District officials have maintained through a series of public meetings on the project that all water sent south, either from Lake O or from farmland, will be cleaned to federal standards.

Plan laid out

The foundation laid out its plan for the district the week before Christmas, Eikenberg said, and got no response.

The meeting took place, said district spokesman Randy Smith, but the foundation representatives "didn't present any data or technical documents to support their plan."

And when district staffers asked for data to evaluate, foundation staffers "said they were not willing to provide that."

Van Lent said the foundation has "offered to share our modeling results with the (district) if they had any interest in considering this as an alternative that they would present to the Legislature. But, clearly, at every opportunity, the (district) has made it clear that they have no interest in looking at anything besides what they have already put out there."

One piece of data the foundation did provide, Smith said, was the cost: the $1.6 billion called for by the state Legislature.

"But that was for the reservoir alone," he added, and doesn't include the cost of building the stormwater treatment area.

Both the district and the foundation have done that, Van Lent replied. The A-2 site has already been ear-marked to be a water cleaning facility under a previous program, The Central Everglades Planning Project. So the district and the foundation are putting the cost of the reservoir's stormwater treatment on CEPP, not on the reservoir project.

The district is scheduled to report its progress on the reservoir to the Legislature on Jan. 9, the first day of this year's legislative session.

Reservoir plans

The South Florida Water Management District has developed five alternatives for the reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee, all on two basic footprints, all on state-owned land. The Everglades Foundation has a plan it says will clean water better.

    South Florida Water Management District:

    • 10,100-acre, 78 billion-gallon, 23-feet-deep reservoir and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area, all on the A-2 parcel and land to the west
    • 117 billion-gallon, 19,700-acre, 18-feet-deep reservoir and 11,500-acre stormwater treatment area on the A-2 parcel and the adjoining A-1 parcel immediately to the east

    Everglades Foundation:

    • 16,000-acre, 78 billion-gallon, 14-feet-deep reservoir
    • 13,000-acre stormwater treatment area
    • Site: State-owned land known as the A-2 parcel, land to the west that's mostly state-owned and about 13,000 acres of land obtained in swaps with adjacent landowners