South Florida water managers complained Thursday the Army Corps of Engineers is dodging their requests to work together on a touted reservoir to catch Lake Okeechobee overflow and protect Treasure Coast waterways.
The reservoir, which is planned for land in western Palm Beach County, was pushed by powerful Florida Senate President Joe Negron and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May as a way to reduce harmful lake discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Its budget, originally estimated at $1.6 billion, also comes with a tight timeline that included a Tuesday submission to the state recommendations on where and how to build the massive holding tank.
The reservoir requires changes to the federal Central Everglades Planning Project, which means the South Florida Water Management District needs approval from the Corps on how to shoehorn it into the overarching plan. To that extent, the district is looking for assistance in the planning process.
But district Executive Director Ernie Marks said in a Dec. 22 letter to the acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works in Washington, D.C. that it has been a “very slow and disappointing experience trying to reach agreement with the (Corps).”
Marks said the project, which district officials estimated Thursday could take up to 15 years to complete, could be further delayed by the “numerous roadblocks and course changes” the Corps has made since an October letter from the Corps offered its full support.
“I’m saying this loud and clear to the people who have criticized our process and modeling and everything we’ve done to date, I’m absolutely angered by where we are at this juncture,” said water district governing board member Federico Fernandez during a Thursday meeting. “I’m very troubled with the Corps’ reluctance, or limited participation, to date in this process.”
Because of the tight timeframe required in state law, the district chose to plan the reservoir using a special section of the Water Resources Development Act that allows non-federal agencies to conduct feasibility studies for submission directly to the Secretary of the Army.
Corps spokesman John Campbell said the “little-used” section of the act puts limitations on the Corps’ input.
“Before the state embarked on this effort, we had communicated our interest in fully participating in the state-Corps feasibility report for a Southern storage option, which admittedly didn’t meet the timelines envisioned by (the Senate bill),” Campbell said. “Many of our senior leaders from Washington, D.C. will be in South Florida this week to meet with stakeholders at several venues and we anticipate further discussion on this and other restoration priorities.”
The next deadline for the project is a March submittal to the Secretary of the Army. District officials were hoping for feedback by the Corps before that to keep the project on pace. In lieu of that participation, the district is contracting with companies familiar with Corps processes hoping to anticipate potential problems the Corps may have on the front end, said Matt Morrison, the district’s federal policy and coordination bureau chief.
“The bottom line is we would like to engage the Corps in technical assistance prior to sending the report to Washington and we’ve been trying to do that since mid-May,” Morrison said.