News-Press

October 15, 2016

 

Water district continues work on critical projects

Mitch Hutchcraft

http://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/2016/10/15/water-district-continues-work-critical-projects/92049268/

 

Thankfully, Hurricane Matthew did not strike Southwest Florida with its potential ferocity. But the storm offered water managers at the South Florida Water Management District an excellent opportunity to test drive our emergency preparedness plan. I am pleased to report that the agency executed its storm-related work with great pliancy and thoroughness to help protect millions of residents, visitors, businesses and our environment.

That same degree of diligence drives this agency in its work on your behalf to develop, design and complete projects to improve regional water resources in the short term and into the future. On behalf of our governing board, the Fort Myers News-Press is to be congratulated for the opportunity to highlight some of these key projects and inform its readers how SFWMD is investing their tax dollars.

Through a very public process, the Board made one of its largest investments in a project that addresses the number one environmental concern of Southwest Florida: the health of the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary. With the board’s full support, the $600 million Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir broke ground in 2015, and progress is being made every day. The massive project will provide essential freshwater flows to help maintain estuary health during dry seasons and at times when the river flow falls below the minimum required to maintain its ecology.

Along with these primary benefits, the reservoir will aid in capturing and storing basin stormwater runoff and regulatory water releases from Lake Okeechobee, reducing the number and volume of harmful discharges to the estuary.

The entire project will provide 170,000 acre-feet of deep storage. Phase 1 will provide 90,000 acre-feet of storage with scheduled completion set for 2020.

Just up the Caloosahatchee is a project developed in conjunction with Lee County to test ways to clean nitrogen in the watershed. Located on 1,770 acres, the science developed at the Water Quality Treatment and Testing Facility will provide water quality treatment strategies that will be vital in designing future projects.

And in Glades County, Lake Hicpochee is being transformed into a 6,000-acre marsh that closely resembles its natural condition. The Florida Legislature appropriated money, and the Board has invested approximately $18.5 million to rehydrate the lake bed, improving water storage and quality in the watershed. The required construction permit has been issued, and the project is scheduled for completion by November 2017.

Additionally, SFWMD is working with the Legislature, which allocated $47.8 million, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on public-private partnerships to store water and provide regional water quality and quantity benefits. Collectively, these projects may add up to 272,000 acre-feet of new water retention and storage per year around Lake Okeechobee.

Because water storage is such a critical issue, SFWMD is well underway with work on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Planning Project. The primary goal of this effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to identify water storage and treatment opportunities north of Lake Okeechobee. Plans call for creating 200,000 additional acre-feet of northern storage. This is consistent with the 2015 University of Florida Water Institute recommendations and Gov. Rick Scott’s 20-Year Plan to fund Everglades restoration.

Like hurricane preparation, protecting the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary and the Southwest Coast’s water resources is a work in progress over the long term.  The Board’s goal is to keep Southwest Florida residents informed about these efforts to improve water quality and storage and protect the ecosystems that drive your everyday lives.

Mitch Hutchcraft is a member of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.