November 16, 2010

Water district official: Lake O discharges will stop ‘within my lifetime'

By Tyler Treadway

STUART — Officials with the South Florida Water Management District said Tuesday that damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary will end ... some day.

"The St. Lucie River will see the elimination of harmful discharges, barring extreme circumstances like hurricanes, within my lifetime," Kenneth G. Ammon, the district's deputy executive director for Everglades restoration and capital projects, told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers Editorial Board.

"But I'm not going to tell you how old I am," Ammon, who records show is 59, added with a grin. "If we had unlimited funds, and if the design and construction process was managed at the regional level, I'd have no problem saying 15 to 20 years. But that's a lot of ifs, with money being the big driver."

Kevin Powers of Stuart, the Treasure Coast representative on the district's Board of Governors, agreed the discharges will stop "in my lifetime, but not within the next 20 years."

In mid-October, the district closed a $197 million deal to buy 26,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. farmland for Everglades restoration, a fraction of the $2 billion, 180,000-acre plan Gov. Charlie Crist proposed in June 2008 to create for a "flow way" for water south from Lake Okeechobee.

Environmentalists on the Treasure Coast praised Crist's plan as a way to stop discharges of the lake's nutrient-rich fresh water that damages plant and animal life in the brackish St. Lucie Estuary, but they said the whittled-down version won't do anything to help the estuary.

Ammon noted that the deal with U.S. Sugar gives the district a 10-year option to buy the remaining land, "which keeps the full deal alive while we look for alternative funding."

Those alternatives include the federal departments of Interior and Agriculture, he said, noting that the Army Corps of Engineers "resists contributing to water-quality projects."

The flow way, Ammon added, "isn't off the table, it's just that the district isn't able to afford it alone."

Powers said the proposed flow way isn't the "silver bullet" to cure all of South Florida's water woes.

"In reality, there's so much other work to be done south of the lake, north of the lake and around the estuaries," he said. "It's all going to be expensive, and it's all going to take a long time."

Ammon noted that construction is scheduled to begin in March on a 3,400-acre reservoir and 6,300-acre treatment area along the C-44 Canal to store and clean local storm water runoff in southwestern Martin County before it flows into the estuary.

"There are 68 projects within (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project)," Ammon said, "and it's not like we haven't been making incremental progress on them. No, it's not going as fast as we'd like; but that's all money-driven."