August 25, 2016
Expert: Sen. Negronís reservoir plan needs more projects, policies to stop Lake Okeechobee discharges
By Tyler Treadway of TCPalm
STUART ó A proposed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee won't stop discharges to the St. Lucie River, not by itself at least.
Instead, the 60,000-acre reservoir envisioned by state Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart should be seen as the "centerpiece" of a series of projects and policies designed to store excess Lake Okeechobee water, clean it and send it south to the Everglades, members of the Rivers Coalition were told Thursday.
After the coalition voted to support Negron's plan, members heard what else would be needed to make the reservoir do the job of stopping discharges.
Negron is calling for a $2.4 billion state-federal project to buy land south of Lake O and build a reservoir to hold 120 billion gallons of water.
But a "static" reservoir won't stop the discharges, said Gary Goforth, a Stuart-based environmental engineer with more than 30 years of experience in large-scale ecosystem restoration projects.
So far this year, more than 170 billion gallons of Lake O water has been sent to the St. Lucie and 372 billion gallons to the Caloosahatchee River. That's a total of 542 billion gallons.
Instead, a "dynamic" that constantly feeds water to stormwater treatment areas for cleaning and sending south would be able to store several times its static volume over the course of a year.
Accommodating the extra flow could mean building a new outlet from Lake O and about 5,000 acres of additional stormwater treatment areas south of the lake, Goforth said.
Negron's plan wisely calls for the reservoir to be built adjacent to existing stormwater treatment areas, Goforth said, but the 57,000 acres of treatment areas south of the lake now stay full, during the rainy season at least, of water drained off farmland south of the lake.
To better use the existing treatment areas, Goforth said, would require a policy of "moving water south from the lake 52 weeks a year" and not just during the rainy season.
Negron's plan calls for the state and the federal government to split the $2.4 billion cost to buy land for and build the reservoir. He'll propose in the 2017 legislative session, when he'll be president of the Senate, using $100 million in Amendment 1 funds each year over 20 years to generate the state's $1.2 billion share.
Also, Congress would have to add the plan to the water projects it approves every two years.
Negron has admitted getting his proposal through the state Legislature, past Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen and into the federal appropriations bill will be difficult.
Negron has suggested the state's $1.2 billion share of the project could come from proceeds of Amendment 1, the measure overwhelmingly approved by voters to pay for acquiring conservation land.
Money for the federal government's share could come from the $2 billion earmarked for deep storage wells planned as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Planning Project, suggested coalition member Charles Grande.
Research has shown the 200-plus wells proposed for north of Lake O won't be able to store as much water as originally thought, Grande said. Scrapping the wells could pay for the reservoir with hundreds of millions of dollars to spare.
The politically influential sugar industry opposes Negron's plan, saying the loss of farmland will mean a loss of 1,000 or more jobs. On Wednesday, about 50 residents of communities south of Lake O protested against the proposal at Negron's Martin County office.
But Goforth suggested sugar farmers should get behind the plan because they could use water stored in the reservoir for irrigation.
"So the project would be beneficial to the sugar industry," he added, "and the more common ground we can find with the sugar industry, the better."
Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for U.S. Sugar, countered that when Lake Okeechobee doesn't have water for irrigation, the reservoir won't, either.
When drought conditions drive Lake Okeechobee to low levels, "our canals are low, retention ponds are dry, the water conservation areas are dry and the Everglades is dry," Sanchez said. "If this proposed reservoir is designed to hold Lake Okeechobee water, it would most probably be as dry as everything else because you wouldn't have lake water to send."