A state-mandated reservoir to protect Treasure Coast waterways from Lake Okeechobee overflow could cost nearly $2 billion under blueprints released Thursday during a divisive meeting at the South Florida Water Management District.
The reservoir, proposed for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County, has been on a fast track since it was pushed by Senate President Joe Negron, approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year.
Project proposals are due to lawmakers Jan. 9. Until this month, it was mostly harmonious. Watching the swift progress with approval were Glades-area activists, who want to protect agricultural land south of the lake, and Treasure Coast advocates trying to prevent another lake-spurred algae outbreak.
But when the final options on where to store between 260,000- and 360,000-acre-feet of excess lake water were presented at a Dec. 13 water management meeting, concerns were raised that they were too similar, and didn’t include enough land options to allow for a larger, but shallower, reservoir.
Those points were raised again during Thursday’s meeting where Glades-area residents made the familiar refrain accusing environmental groups of using the law to remove farm land.
“We know there are underlying forces that want to see agriculture taken out of the Everglades Agricultural Area and who want to see our towns decimated,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner. “You followed the confines of the (law), no more land taken out of production.”
Kimberly Mitchell, executive director of the Everglades Trust, said no one is “anti-farmer.”
“I hate the fact that we keep using words that divide communities,” she said.
Thursday was the district’s 10th informational meeting on the reservoir plans, but the first time dollar amounts were tied to each of five options. It was also the first time officials released information on how the water from the proposed reservoir will flow south to parched Florida Bay and the Greater Everglades system.
The amount of water that needs to reach the Greater Everglades, which was its natural watershed before development, is outlined in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, approved by Congress in 2000.
The lowest-cost reservoir option, a 240,000-acre-foot above-ground holding area that would cut the number of lake discharges to the estuaries by 52 percent and meet 89 percent of what is required to flow south, would cost $1.42 billion.
On the high end, a 360,000-acre-foot reservoir that would reduce discharge events by 61 percent and meet about 90 percent of the goal to flow water south, would cost $1.95 billion.
Negron, R-Stuart, pushed for the reservoir after the 2016 algae outbreak when thick mats of green, foul-smelling algae spread through the St. Lucie estuary. Fresh water releases from Lake Okeechobee, necessary that year because of plentiful rainfall that pressured the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, helped seed the algae and damage fragile ecosystems that thrive in brackish water.
The bill anticipated a $1.6 billion budget with the state and federal government splitting the cost.
After the reservoir options were released, Negron wrote water management Director Ernie Marks urging the district to be flexible in planning the reservoir and use additional land, if necessary. The law doesn’t allow the district to take land for the reservoir by eminent domain.
Marks, in a Thursday response, said landowners adjacent to the reservoir have so far been unwilling to sell or swap their parcels for state-owned land.
Eva Velez, director of Everglades policy for the district, reiterated Marks’ letter Thursday.
“We have heard back from the majority of land owners and the majority of land owners have told us, or notified us, of their unwillingness to sell,” Velez said. “If more land becomes available, we will investigate it.”
Mitchell said the district should consider canceling leases on state-owned land, including on property used by PRIDE Enterprises to grow sugar cane. PRIDE is an inmate training company that has facilities throughout Florida, including a sugar cane farm northwest of Wellington.
“The (law) didn’t delineate a footprint, it gave an idea on where to go on already state-owned land so we could be respectful of not taking any more land out of production than necessary,” Mitchell said. “However, it also said the goal is to be optimal in the way the reservoir is going to work.”
The reservoir project must also be approved by Congress, with a report due Oct. 1. A timeline for completion calls for federal authorization in 2019.