Florida Gov. Noncommittal on Water Storage Efforts to Cut Lake Okeechobee Discharges
A coalition of environmental groups is pushing the state to expedite planning of a reservoir that could significantly reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River, but water managers and Gov. Rick Scott haven't jumped on board.
At hand is a reservoir south of the lake that would hold more than 117 billion gallons of lake water. That's just short of the 120 billion gallons that have been released into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers since discharges began on Jan. 30. The reservoir is part of a multi-project Everglades restoration plan the state and Congress approved in 2000.
Environmental groups are trying to gain momentum from a highly publicized new law that creates a dedicated fund for the Everglades with priority given to projects that reduce discharges. On Tuesday, Scott, along with Treasure Coast elected officials, attended a ceremonial signing in West Palm Beach of the law that was signed in April.
Scott was noncommittal about supporting the reservoir. He said instead the so-called "Legacy Florida" law allows the South Florida Water Management District, which is in charge of restoration, to "plan ahead" on all restoration projects on the books.
He also touted state efforts to finish existing projects that help the Indian River Lagoon, which has experienced environmental havoc because of lake releases. Among the projects is raising the Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County to allow more water to flow into the Everglades. When asked whether he would visit the Treasure Coast in light of the recent algae blooms in the St. Lucie River, Scott said, "I travel the state every day," and noted the Department of Environmental Protection this week is testing the algae for toxicity.
"Are we where we want to be? No, but we are making progress every day," Scott said. "Whether it's stormwater treatment areas, whether it's dredging projects, there are projects happening all over this area."
The reservoir would be built along existing canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area, just south of the lake. It would hold water that leaves the lake and send it to treatment areas before it reaches Everglades National Park, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, one of the groups pushing to expedite the project.
A plan for the reservoir was developed in the early 2000s, but the original land for the project no longer is available because it is now being used for two unrelated water treatment projects. Draper said planning is slated to begin again in 2020, but Audubon and other groups asked the South Florida water district and Army Corps of Engineers to start planning this summer. That's when the two agencies begin discussions on how to store more water that enters Lake Okeechobee from the north.
The hope is that if the reservoir is planned this year, the Legislature would allocate at least some of the money for it in 2018. Florida Senate President-designate Joe Negron, of Stuart, said last week he's coming up with a proposal to reduce discharges .
Planning south and north storage at the same time would represent a "costly distraction and loss of time," wrote South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Peter Antonacci in a May 11 letter to the environmental groups. He also noted north storage has several environmental benefits, such as reducing the amount of water that enters the lake and eventually gets discharged into the St. Lucie River.
Draper said planning for south storage, which directs much-needed water into the Everglades and Florida Bay, should happen before north storage. A southern reservoir would be built in farmland that's mostly owned by sugar growers.