Project to alleviate algae outbreaks on fast track

It was just over a year ago that bubbling mats of green algae last fouled Treasure Coast waterways, pushing powerful Florida Senate leader Joe Negron to champion the construction of massive reservoirs for excess water south of Lake Okeechobee.

The estimated $1.6 billion-plan, which would use about 34,000 acres of state-owned land in western Palm Beach County and is designed to cajole a pocket of private owners to sell or swap, was approved by lawmakers in the spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

South Florida Water Management District officials have since fast-tracked the project with a report to the state due Jan. 9, a report to Congress due Oct. 1 and federal authorization in 2019.

“They are compressing something that normally would take three years into one year,” said Celeste De Palma, Everglades Policy Associate for Audubon Florida. “It’s all hands on deck.”

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Already, four public meetings have been conducted with two more scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today in Clewiston’s John Boy Auditorium, and 6 p.m. Thursday at water management district headquarters in West Palm Beach.

And, unlike much of the angst-laden land controversies pitting farmers against environmentalists, stakeholders from U.S. Sugar Corp. to the Florida Oceanographic Society appear pleased with the swift progress and concept.

“The sooner we get it done, the sooner we can get some relief to the estuaries,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society. “This project is very exciting because it’s the critical project going south.”

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The plan tries to answer the environmental call to send overflow Lake Okeechobee water south, its natural watershed before man carved up Florida, slashing canals through the Everglades to better drain land for farms and homes.

It leaves Florida Bay starved of freshwater, while flushing freshwater from Lake Okeechobee through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries — a damaging onslaught on fragile ecosystems that thrive in brackish water.

“It’s a good system for us to live and work here, but there are unintended consequences for the ecosystem,” said Matt Morrison, chief of the water management district’s federal policy and coordination bureau, during an Oct. 26 public workshop. “We want to get back to where we were, where the water flowed historically.”

The flows east and west out of Lake Okeechobee seeded the devastating 2016 algae bloom on the Treasure Coast and compelled Negron, R-Stuart, to draft Senate Bill 10, which outlines the requirements for reservoirs south of the lake.

South Florida sugar growers and Glades-area residents fearing the loss of jobs fought early plans, which identified 60,000 acres occupied by the state’s largest organic farm, the Okeelanta sugar mill, and a portion of U.S. Sugar’s rail line. The compromise was to build on land already owned by the state.

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“We’re optimistic that the district will be able to meet the water storage and treatment objective of SB 10 to build the southern reservoir on the existing A-1, A-2 footprint,” said U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez.

Sanchez is referring to current plans that show two reservoirs, one of which already serves as a shallow-water holding tank adjacent to the Holey Land Wildlife Management Area. The second area, which is north of Holey Land, would be reserved to hold a minimum of 240,000-acre-feet of water.

It’s also possible the first shallow holding tank could be deepened to increase the amount of water stored to 360,000-acre-feet.

At the same time, a handful of private property owners along the Miami Canal are being asked if they want to sell to the state or participate in a land swap that will allow an easier connection to the canal and more water storage.

“We are looking for willing sellers,” Morrison said. “That’s very important to understand.”

Perry said the southern reservoir project was part of the original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but planning on the reservoirs wasn’t scheduled to begin the design phase until 2022.

“That bothered us,” Perry said. “Now, it’s moving forward, and the district is having workshops and being very transparent.”

It’s still unclear exactly how much the southern reservoirs will alleviate discharges to the estuaries, which largely depend on rainfall amounts. More details on that are expected as the planning continues.

“As far as how much it helps discharges, we’re not there yet,” De Palma said. “We want to make sure we get relief to the estuaries, but also send more flows to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.”

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