Lake O overflow may get pumped underground to fix algae problem

Water managers are fast-tracking plans to dispose of Lake Okeechobee overflow by pumping it 3,000 feet underground, agreeing to spend $10 million this week to build two deep injection wells in a test of the project’s viability.

The so-called “Emergency Estuary Protection Wells” are billed as a quick solution to reduce the amount of harmful lake water discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries — a process that contributes to the plague of blue-green algae both waterways suffered this summer.

But environmental groups oppose forcing billions of gallons of lake water into the cavernous boulder zone beneath South Florida’s drinking water supply. They argue it’s a waste of freshwater needed during the dry season, and diverts attention from the overall goal of Everglades restoration.

RELATED: Lake Okeechobee was the best it’s looked in years, then this happened

While the two test wells were approved Thursday by the South Florida Water Management District governing board, the ultimate plan could include up to 60 wells at a cost of more than $5 million each. Each well could pump 15 million gallons of water per day.

Shannon Estenoz, chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation, said deep injection wells are “1940s thinking” — a time when unwanted water was funneled places it shouldn’t be, leaving parts of the Everglades too dry, while other parts drown.

She said the district should stick to projects outlined in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that work toward a holistic repair of the Everglades from the northern estuaries to Florida Bay.

“Restoration is about capturing the water, cleaning it and redirecting it to where it should go,” said Estenoz, a former vice-chairman of the water district’s governing board. “The biggest problem is when we throw the water away in the wet season and then when the drought hits, we don’t have it.”

Balancing South Florida’s water needs is a puzzle created when man rerouted the natural plumbing of the state to provide dry land for agriculture and communities.

When too much rain falls, filling up Lake Okeechobee and the stressing the Herbert Hoover Dike, the water must be released into the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River. That freshwater dilutes the brackish waterways, killing oyster beds and sea grasses, while encouraging the growth of blue-green algae.

RELATED: One tropical system can push Lake Okeechobee over the edge

District officials said the deep injection wells can reduce flows to the estuaries while long-term projects are underway.

“We are running this with the thought that these will work in conjunction with restoration, not replace those projects,” said Ansley Marr, the district’s chief of state and agricultural policy, during a Thursday board meeting. “Estuaries derive benefits from these wells under any CERP condition.”

A reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is one of the recent notable projects. It was approved Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives in its Water Resources Development Act.

The $1.4 billion plan slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County is a partial answer to activists’ calls to “send the water south.” While it still faces Senate approval, advocates say they are hopeful a favorable vote may happen this month because the language approved Thursday was a compromise agreed to by House and Senate committee members.

If approved by the end of the year, the plan for the 10,500-acre above-ground reservoir and 6,500-acre storm water treatment area will seek money from the 2020 federal budget.

RELATED: Forest Service burns 5,000 acres on Lake O rim to stop arsonist flames

“This is good news for America’s Everglades,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy at Audubon Florida.

But Audubon Florida is wary of the deep well injection plan.

“What happens over decades when you pump many times the volume that is now in Lake Okeechobee underground,” said Thomas Van Lent, vice president for science and education at the Everglades Foundation. “There are a lot of questions about what will happen to the water already down there.”

In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls discharges from Lake Okeechobee, removed the consideration of deep injection wells from the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, saying further analysis was needed.

In June, the district decided to pursue the wells alone with the idea that the they would only be used when there is excess water in the lake.

Contract proposals to build the test wells are expected by the end of the year.

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