An ambitious project to protect Treasure Coast waterways from rashes of damaging algae reached its first benchmark last week, meeting a deadline as tight as a gator’s bite, but now faces critics who decry it as shortsighted and discriminatory against the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.
The billion-dollar plan, slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County, includes sending Lake Okeechobee overflow into an above-ground bowl formed by berms up to 37-feet high to reduce freshwater discharges into the brackish ecosystems of the St. Lucie Estuary.
It is also touted as a partial answer to environmentalists’ refrain to send the water south into the greater Everglades — the natural path before man scarred Florida’s revered River of Grass with canals, roads and homes cut into marshland.
That watershed feeds into the lands of the Miccosukee, who fear receiving harmful nutrient-laden water tainted by agriculture north of the lake.
The tribe sent a letter to South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks the same day the district’s proposal was due to state lawmakers saying the plan — mandated by legislation passed in 2017 — discriminates against the Miccosukee in favor of the Treasure Coast.
“Clearly, the purpose of the legislation is to reduce the high volume of polluted water from being discharged into the northern estuaries,” wrote Billy Cypress, tribe chairman. “While we do advocate for ‘shared adversity,’ it seems time after time, the only adversity is that which is imposed on Tribal lands.”
Senate President-designate Joe Negron’s announcement Tuesday promoting a plan to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee to store excess water was a surprise to the land owners, according to Florida Crystals, which owns about 60 percent of the properties identified.
In a statement, Florida Crystals said Negron met with a water management consultant for the company on Thursday, but that Tuesday’s proposal was not part of the discussion.
Negron said Tuesday that he talked to the land owners and briefed “them on the plan that I’m putting forward.”
“Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, whose growers’ land falls within the general footprints shown on the map today, was not invited by the Senator,” a joint statement from Florida Crystals and the cooperative reads.
Negron’s office said a senior policy advisor did reach out several times in early June to the cooperative but messages left were not returned.
Negron identified two parcels of land, both about 60,000 acres each and mostly in Palm Beach County, as areas that could become reservoirs to store excess Lake Okeechobee water instead of sending it into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Beginning in February, billions of gallons per day of lake water has been discharged into the fragile estuaries, damaging brackish-water ecosystems and seeding an extensive algae bloom in June and July.
At one point earlier in the year, the Caloosahatchee was getting 4.2 billion gallons per day of lake water, while the St. Lucie was receiving 1.8 billion gallons.
The flows have since been decreased to 420 million gallons per day into the St. Lucie estuary and 1.8 billion into the Caloosahatchee.
But land owners south of the lake aren’t sure about Negron’s plan.
“Taking another 60,000 acres of productive and sustainable farmland out of the EAA will without a doubt close down our sugar mill and put us out of business,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, who said she never got a message that Negron’s office wanted to meet with her. “Sen. Negron’s plan means losing a thousand or more jobs in the Glades communities, not to mention the impact to businesses in the community that provide services to us.”
And some question the feasibility of the $2.4 billion plan, which would mean bonding $100 million in Amendment 1 money and asking the federal government to match the state’s commitment.
The South Florida Water Management District said it did not do the modeling on the land chosen by Negron.
“Everyone is looking for solutions for the system,” Florida Crystals said in a statement. “Our companies strongly support science-based plans that will provide measurable benefits to Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries. Unfortunately, Sen. Negron’s land buy does neither.”
Negron said he knows it won’t be an easy sell to everyone.
“We have our work cut out for us,” he said Tuesday. “In the world of the legislative process and political process, we are in the persuasion business.”
According to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser, the county would be out an estimated $1.3 million in taxes per year if 60,000 acres of agricultural land was no longer on the tax rolls.
In an unprecedented move to keep blue-green algae from fouling Palm Beach County’s Intracoastal waterway, releases from the C-51 canal will be spaced apart instead of coming one long gush of damaging fresh water.
The change in how the water is released from the canal, which flows into the Lake Worth Lagoon between West Palm Beach and the Town of Lake Worth, began Friday.
South Florida Water Management Officials hope that by intermittently “pulsing” the water into the lagoon, the natural tidal fluxes will keep salinity levels high enough to kill the blue-green algae that has built a thick scum in some areas of the St. Lucie Estuary.
Similar pulse-like discharges have been ongoing from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie estuary, but Randy Smith, a spokesman for the water management district said this is the first time this time of release has been made from the C-51.
“If you are having heavy rains, you can’t really do this, but it’s been a little drier so you can stagger the releases,” Smith said. “This gives salinity levels a chance to come back up because they are not constantly fighting the releases.”
The changes in the C-51 are part of a series of emergency actions the water management district has taken since Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties, including Palm Beach, over the blue-green algae.
The measures include storing additional water in the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes north of Lake Okeechobee and in Florida Power and Light’s cooling pond at the Martin Clean Energy Center near Indiantown.
Earlier this month, the South Florida Water Management District also increased the amount of lake water being pumped into the L-8 Canal in the western part of Palm Beach County — a move some environmental leaders say could send more algae into the Intracoastal Waterway.
On June 30, the district said it was increasing water releases into the L-8 Canal to 258 million gallons per day — a 60 percent hike from the previous level. The waterway connects to the C-51 Canal, which flows from the west to the east along Southern Boulevard through the central part of the county.
With more algae-laden water headed toward canals running through Palm Beach County, residents and environmental activists worry about a damaging proliferation of blooms.
But it’s not just Lake Okeechobee that is a concern. Nitrogen-heavy runoff from western communities also travels through the C-51.
“Clearly, with the existing water and temperature conditions, any source of fresh water is susceptible to the algae,” Smith said.