The Army Corps is “undermining” Florida’s plans for an ecosystem-saving reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee with doubts about the restorative benefits of sending water to the central Everglades, according to state water managers.
The $1.4 billion reservoir, slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County, was approved by state lawmakers last year. It is expected to serve two key purposes — protect northern estuaries from harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges that can seed algae blooms and allow more water to follow its historic flow south.
Last week the assistant secretary of the army for civil works said the reservoir is “feasible from an engineering and construction viewpoint.”
But an 86-page review of the plan raises several “technical, policy, and legal concerns” and questions why flows of water diverted from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries are important to fixing the Everglades.
“The opinion that such water is ‘essential’ to Everglades restoration because that water is ‘critically important to the health of the Everglades’ is conclusory,” the review states. “It does not provide a technical basis by which to judge the reasonableness for adopting such a conclusion.”
In a sternly worded June 1 letter, South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks and Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez said the Army Corps has “laid the foundation for delay and avoidance of federal cost share.”
Reservoir costs are to be split between the state and federal government.
“The uncertainty that the headquarters staff included within the report related to cost sharing and water to the Everglades is backtracking on prior commitments,” said Eva Velez, the district’s director of Everglades policy. “We are in sync with the assistant secretary of the army and we have heard the folks in the estuaries who need relief, and then there are career folks in headquarters that are undermining that progress.”
Despite the Corps’ questions about the reservoir, the project was referred to the Office of Management and Budget for review and is widely supported by Florida lawmakers, including U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and U.S. Representatives Brian Mast, Carlos Curbelo and Francis Rooney.
“We have made our message very clear: we will not continue to let discharges destroy our backyards,” said U.S. Rep Mast (R-Palm City). “Congress has made its intentions clear, and I will not tolerate any more bureaucratic delays.”
Gov. Rick Scott spoke with White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney on Monday regarding the importance of the reservoir and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
“Congress has failed to solve these problems for decades, and the Governor has fought to advance these important priorities and deliver results for these communities,” said Scott’s Communications Director John Tupps.
The dispute is timely.
On Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River to lower the lake level and make room for wet season rains or deluges from tropical systems. Releases were already occurring in the Caloosahatchee. If the lake gets too high, it can erode the Herbert Hoover Dike, which protects Glades-area communities from flooding.
The Corps prefers to keep the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet above sea level. As of Tuesday, it was 14.2 feet above sea level.
But the freshwater discharges reduce the salinity level in the estuaries, harming seagrasses and oysters.
The lake water also contributes to the growth of cyanobacteria — a blue-green algae that can explode to damaging proportions in fresh water high in phosphorous and nitrogen.
A scum of algae has been spotted on the lake in recent days, and Treasure Coast residents fear a repeat of 2016 when thick mats of stinking algae fouled their waterways following lake discharges.
“Because of what we all experienced in 2016, we are very sensitive,” said Jacquie Thurlow-Lippisch, former Mayor of Sewall’s Point. “We are concerned for our businesses, our real estate, and it’s a health issue for people who live on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee.”
Oceanographer Rick Stumpf, is monitoring the algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee via satellite as part of his work with a special Harmful Algae Blooms office in NOAA’s National Ocean Service.
“What there is now for a bloom is really small. It’s small enough that a satellite image would not be interesting, which is a good thing,” Stumpf said. “It’s not at all extensive, and for at least the last several days, there is nothing of consequence near the releases.”
The planned project south of Lake Okeechobee includes the 10,500-acre above ground reservoir, which can accommodate a water depth of up to 22.6 feet, and a 6,500-acre storm water treatment area.
The reservoir was an original piece of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved by Congress in 2000, but got sidetracked by the state’s unsuccessful attempt to buy sugar land.
The Office of Management and Budget has 60 days to review the reservoir project.