Lake Okeechobee water war escalates with terse exchange

The Everglades Foundation responded Thursday to a South Florida Water Management District letter that called a foundation report on Lake Okeechobee “irresponsible science.”

The two groups have different ideas of how best to solve Lake Okeechobee’s overflow problem and where the excess water should be stored so it doesn’t discharge into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Read the South Florida Water Management District letter. 

While both groups agree more water storage is needed north, south, east and west of the lake, the foundation wants a priority placed on southern storage, while the district wants plans that are already in play to continue that would increase storage first north of the lake while completing projects already started south of the lake.

Historic flow of Lake Okeechobee,left, compared to current situation after land was drained for homes and farms.

Historic flow of Lake Okeechobee,left, compared to current situation after land was drained for homes and farms.

Thomas Van Lent, vice president for programs at the Everglades Foundation, calls the district’s letter this week “vitriolic” and laments it’s “malicious tenor.”

“Clearly, your agency is using this primarily as an attack piece, as evidenced by the nearly complete lack of specific technical information and considering this was supposed to be an engineer-to-engineer letter,” Van Lent wrote.

Read the Everglades Foundation letter. 

The district’s letter came prior to a Wednesday hearing in Tallahassee, where legislators for the first time heard testimony relating to Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to buy farm land south of the lake for storage.

At the meeting, the University of Florida presented a report that said 1 million-acre-feet of storage is necessary. Just 20 percent of that is currently planned for or under construction.

A 3-year planning process for more storage, including a reservoir north of the lake, is about one year in.

Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer and former water district employee, testified that a started, but not completed, project to store water in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the lake is the “single most important project,” on the table.

Goforth is also in favor of storing more water south of the lake, saying that storing water north of the lake is not as effective in reducing discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. It is those discharges that seeded the widespread algae outbreak during the summer.

But Wendy Graham said her research found the benefits to reducing discharges and increasing a southerly flow of water were almost the same regardless of whether the majority of water was stored north or south.

“If you want to protect the estuaries, it’s pretty equal north or south of the lake,” Graham said. “For rehydrating the Everglades, you can’t achieve that only with storage north of the lake, you will need it south also.”

With all current projects completed – something expected by 2030 – Graham said there will be about 170,000-acre-feet of added storage south of the lake and no storage north of the lake. That’s about 17 percent of the 1 million acre feet Graham said is needed.

The finished projects will result in a 55 percent reduction in lake discharges into the estuaries and achieve about 75 percent of the needed southerly flow of water to the Everglades, Graham said.

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