The $1.4 billion project slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County is a partial answer to activists’ calls to “send the water south” and could alleviate the blue-green algae blooms plaguing the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
An announcement late Tuesday by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget sends the plan to Congress for inclusion in its Water Resources Development Act, which is expected to be approved by year’s end.
“You couldn’t get any more compelling of an argument for the project than seeing this algae bloom,” said Daniel Andrews, executive director for the Fort Myers-based Captains for Clean Water. “We’ve been fighting hard for it.”
Photos posted by Captains for Clean Water of a pea soup-looking Caloosahatchee River have garnered thousands of views on social media.
“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen here,” Andrews said.
If approved by the end of the year, the plan for the 10,500-acre above-ground reservoir and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area will seek money from the 2020 federal budget. Depending on how the money is distributed for the project — the state and federal government are expected to split the cost — the reservoir could take about 10 years to build.
But reservoir supporters said the project has so far moved through the system at the “speed of light.”
“This started with Sen. Negron, and the Florida legislature and the governor moving heaven and Earth to make sure we planned the Everglades reservoir faster,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida. “I think it just shows how important this project is.”
The reservoir was pushed by retiring Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017. It followed the devastating algae outbreak of 2016 when thick foul-smelling mats of cyanobacteria covered the St. Lucie River during a period that included the Fourth of July holiday — a heavy tourist time for the Treasure Coast.
Record rainfall in May combined with warm summer days grew another bout of blue-green algae this summer. A July 2 infrared satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee infected with cyanobacteria — more commonly called blue-green algae.
High lake levels forced the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, further diluting the brackish waterway’s salinity levels and encouraging algae growth. Discharges were temporarily stopped Monday, but the Corps said it will likely have to restart them this week.
“It’s kind of hard for a business to thrive in South Florida if there is smelly, nasty, toxic algae floating all over the river,” Andrews said.
According to the EPA, drinking, swallowing or swimming in water with a toxic algae bloom can cause stomach, liver, respiratory and neurological problems, as well as rashes. Cyanobacteria can also get so abundant that when they die, their decomposition can remove oxygen from the water and kill fish.
Brian LaPointe, a Florida Atlantic University research professor and algae expert, said while extra storage south of the lake may reduce discharges to the estuaries, it’s important to note the reservoir won’t help Lake Okeechobee itself.
Water flowing in from the north needs to be stored, slowed and cleaned to reduce nutrient levels reaching the lake for its algae problem to improve.
Still, De Palma said the pieces of the restoration puzzle are coming together.
If the reservoir project didn’t get approval this year from the Office of Management and Budget, it would have to wait two more years until the Water Resources Development Act comes up again.
“Literally, this is the go ahead, the green light on the project,” she said. “We are almost there. I can see the finish line.”