An ambitious project to protect Treasure Coast waterways from rashes of damaging algae reached its first benchmark last week, meeting a deadline as tight as a gator’s bite, but now faces critics who decry it as shortsighted and discriminatory against the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.
The billion-dollar plan, slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County, includes sending Lake Okeechobee overflow into an above-ground bowl formed by berms up to 37-feet high to reduce freshwater discharges into the brackish ecosystems of the St. Lucie Estuary.
It is also touted as a partial answer to environmentalists’ refrain to send the water south into the greater Everglades — the natural path before man scarred Florida’s revered River of Grass with canals, roads and homes cut into marshland.
That watershed feeds into the lands of the Miccosukee, who fear receiving harmful nutrient-laden water tainted by agriculture north of the lake.
The tribe sent a letter to South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Ernie Marks the same day the district’s proposal was due to state lawmakers saying the plan — mandated by legislation passed in 2017 — discriminates against the Miccosukee in favor of the Treasure Coast.
“Clearly, the purpose of the legislation is to reduce the high volume of polluted water from being discharged into the northern estuaries,” wrote Billy Cypress, tribe chairman. “While we do advocate for ‘shared adversity,’ it seems time after time, the only adversity is that which is imposed on Tribal lands.”
The reservoir was pushed by powerful Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May after the devastating algae outbreak of 2016 when thick foul-smelling mats of cyanobacteria covered the St. Lucie River during a period that included the July 4th holiday — a heavy tourist time for the Treasure Coast.
Negron’s original pitch was for 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee that included South Florida sugar farms, the Okeelanta sugar mill, a portion of U.S. Sugar’s rail line and North America’s largest renewable power plant.
The deep-pocketed sugar lobby went to Tallahassee backed by Glades-area farmworkers to fight what they called a “land grab.” The negotiated legislation — SB 10 — was heralded on all sides, but it restricted the South Florida Water Management District’s reach while setting it on a timeline as swift as an airboat cutting through sawgrass.
“They worked weekends, through the Christmas holiday, to get this submitted,” said Michael Collins, a member of the district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition and former member of its governing board about staff charged with reservoir planning. “It’s gotten to be a bit of a circus.”
Federal authorization is expected by the end of 2019.
The first deadline was a report to the state Jan. 9 that outlined five reservoir options, with two “best buys” noted as the most cost efficient — one at $1.34 billion and the other $1.71 billion. Costs would be split between the state and federal government.
The cheapest option at $1.34 billion would create a 23-foot-deep reservoir on 10,100 acres of land that could hold 240,000-acre feet of water. It includes a 6,500-acre shallow marsh called a storm water treatment area used to clean water before releasing it.
The $1.71 billion option would create an 18-foot deep reservoir on 19,700 acres that could hold 360,000-acre-feet of water. It includes an 11,500-acre storm water treatment area, but means deepening an existing 15,000-acre, 4-foot deep reservoir called a flow equalization basin used to hold water before sending it to the storm water treatment area.
Embankment heights would be between 31 and 37 feet depending on the plan, which district Chief Engineer John Mitnik said is not unusual. He said other projects underway include berms of 38-feet, while the south end of the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee is up to 42-feet high.
Both plans, in addition to other Everglades restoration projects, reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the northern estuaries by about 60 percent.
But environmentalists said they were hoping the plan wouldn’t be restricted to state-owned land and that a larger footprint allowing for a shallower reservoir would be a better option.
“It’s undisputed that more land would make this project better,” said Lisa Interlandi, senior staff counsel of the Everglades Law Center, at a district governing board meeting Thursday. “Throughout the planning process we asked you time and time again to consider one alternative to have a larger footprint.”
Eva Velez, director of Everglades policy for the water management district, said private landowners with more than 2,500 acres near the project were asked whether they were willing to sell or swap their land. Eighty percent said they were not willing to sell or swap, with the remainder not responding.
Unlike other projects where the district has eminent domain power, the reservoir legislation does not give it that ability. Velez said the district didn’t want to work on an idealized plan that relied on private land in case the owner refused, especially under a tight deadline.
“We could go through all this effort and then the landowner tells us no,” Velez said. “The risk was too high.”
The district is confident it can achieve the state water quality criteria with the proposed footprints and meet federal goals on the quantity of water going south.
The reservoir, which was an original piece of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved by Congress in 2000 before it got sidetracked by the state’s unsuccessful attempt to buy sugar land, also includes sending freshwater to parched Florida Bay.
The bay, a sprawling estuary of mud banks, sea grass fields and mangrove islands at the southernmost tip of the Florida Peninsula suffered a devastating sea grass die off in 2015 because of high salinity levels.
But Collins, the former district governing board member and resident of Islamorada, said the quantity of water that would trickle to the bay from the reservoir is so small it would have little effect. Velez acknowledged the reduction in salinity levels in the bay would be “very modest.”
“We feel like we’re being left out down here,” said Elizabeth Jolin, a board member of Florida Bay Forever. “There have to be solutions that benefit everyone.”
The benefits to the estuaries have also been questioned. Bill Louda, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University who studies water nutrient levels, called the reservoir a “stop gap” measure.
“It’s just meant to take some extra water so it doesn’t flush to the estuaries, but once it gets full, it’s going to flush to the estuaries,” Louda said. “The complete cure is to stop nutrients coming down from the north and basically fertilizing Lake Okeechobee.”
A final report from the district on the reservoir plan is due to Secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers March 30, followed by an Oct. 1 submission to Congress.