October 25, 2017
'Send it south' isn't realistic water policy for Lake Okeechobee | Guest column
By: Mitch Hutchcraft
As Hurricane Irma brought significant, widespread flooding and damage to the peninsula of Florida, it also brought nearly 3 feet of water to Lake Okeechobee. As is typical during high periods of rainfall, all of this excess water — combined with the double-digit rainfall totals in June — overwhelmed our man-made flood control system and necessitated massive releases to the coastal estuaries from Lake Okeechobee.
It’s frustrating to see the releases because it means the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are being inundated with even more freshwater than our local runoff has poured in, further reducing salinity and creating more damage in our estuaries.
But it also means the Army Corps of Engineers has run out of options for sending water south.
According to federal regulations, there is no opportunity to send any additional water south. In fact, the storm water treatment areas and water conservation areas are more than a million acre-feet above flood stage and we continue to have high water levels in Everglades National Park.
Some have tried to use Hurricane Irma as an opportunity to sell the public on additional storage south of Lake Okeechobee, but a southern reservoir would have been of little use with so much rainfall and so few real options to discharge water south.
Data from the South Florida Water Management District shows the proposed southern reservoir in Senate Bill 10 — if it had been bone dry — could have taken only 12 percent of the 2 million acre feet of stormwater that has flooded into Lake Okeechobee.
South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith said recently, “If there was a reservoir down here, it probably would have done the same thing. It would have filled up."
In studying options that would reduce the need for coastal discharges, the district recently announced restoration projects targeted north of Lake Okeechobee, where more than 95 percent of the water originates, that will significantly reduce the need for future discharges. The district estimates adding 50 additional deep storage wells to the already-planned regional projects could reduce discharges to the St. Lucie by 67 percent and reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee by 77 percent.
The district puts an affordable $330 million price tag on the projects, which could be operational well before most other storage options. These projects should be a no-brainer at a fraction of the cost of large land buys.
We need to take a holistic approach to finishing projects that will bring the most benefits to everyone impacted by Lake Okeechobee’s high water levels rather than continuing the fantasy of ever returning our dramatically altered, dammed, diked and never totally controlled water management system back “to the way it was” 100 years ago.
While the system, as it stands today, is far from working perfectly, it is a flood control system that enables nearly 8 million people to live in South Florida. Through my service on the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District, I was proud to make focusing on actually fixing problems a priority. That means that sometimes we have to ignore the small but vocal minority that will never settle for any solution other than “send the water south.”
The only real way to “send water south” the way it used to flow would be if we could travel back in time — before the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers were connected to Lake Okeechobee at the request of our own communities; before the Herbert Hoover Dike was built around the lake; before the federal government enacted strict regulations for Everglades National Park; before the Endangered Species Act; before Tamiami Trail bisected the Everglades; before a federal judge took control of our water quality; and before all of us moved into the system and made more and more demands on the system.
Fortunately, there are scientifically proven ways to improve management of the current system, but that depends on letting the professionals at the district and Army Corps complete the suite of projects that are designed to provide the most relief to the entire Orlando-Lake Okeechobee-Everglades ecosystem