October 2, 2016
Guest column: Water from Lake O must go so
Mark Perry, Florida Oceanographic Society
We are now at 247 days of constant discharges from Lake Okeechobee, totaling more than 216 billion gallons into the St. Lucie Estuary and southern Indian River Lagoon.
More than 400 billion gallons have gone to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary from the lake during this same period. The destruction to the environment and the economies in these coastal communities has been devastating, including threats to human health from contact with the waters.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported inflows to the lake of 909 billion gallons since January and, even with record rainfall on the lake of 528 billion gallons, an almost equal amount — 580 billion gallons —left via evaporation and seepage.
So how much water from the lake went south to the Everglades? Only about 12 percent of the outflow, or 160 billion gallons. Both the Army Corps and the South Florida Water Management District stated sending water south from the lake in 2016 has been limited by high rainfall in the water conservation areas. These areas are in and south of the 700,000 Everglades Protection Area (about 480,000 acres of which is sugar cane farms).
The agencies claim the water conservation areas are flooded 1 foot above their schedule for this time of year, so they can’t take any more water from the lake. What they fail to mention is that since January, the EAA has discharged 327 billion gallons of its basin runoff into the water conservation areas.
In fact, the three outlets going south from Lake Okeechobee (known as S-351, S-352 and S-354), operated by the South Florida Water Management District, have been closed while the EAA basin has been sending 1.4 billion gallons per day through the state-owned and operated stormwater treatment areas, into the water conservation areas, keeping the its own water table down to 10 feet elevation. Perfect drainage for the farms in the EAA.
It is also amazing that during this devastating time of unprecedented rainfall and lake discharges, the EAA had one of the longest and largest sugar cane harvests in recent history — resulting in 2.15 million tons of sugar, up from 1.98 million tons in 2014-15.
In August, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, stepped up to the plate and announced a plan to purchase 60,000 acres of farmland in the EAA. Thank goodness, this is exactly what 4.2 million Florida voters asked for back in 2014 when they approved a 20 year, $16 billion land acquisition fund.
The land would be used for an Everglades Agricultural Area water storage project that is already on the Army Corps schedule and part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The project would provide storage, treatment and conveyance of water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
Together with projects underway or planned south of the lake, including Restoration Strategies and the Central Everglades Planning Project, the result would be more than 528,000 acre-feet (172 billion gallons) of water storage. The University of Florida Water Institute Study, released in March 2015, recommended 1 million acre-feet of storage north and south of the lake. The study also outlined detailed storage north of the lake, in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed, of 576,733 acre-feet (188 billion gallons).
If the Lake Okeechobee Watershed project and the EAA Storage project were completed, along with the existing projects in the works, we could have reduced the flows into the lake and moved lake water south over the past eight months so that the Everglades would have gotten clean water slowly and none would have gone to the northern coastal estuaries.
The “River of Grass” can run slowly, giving the Everglades and Florida Bay clean water during the times they need it, and stopping the damaging discharges to the northern estuaries.
This can happen. This is possible. So, during these difficult and frustrating times, let’s work together to buy the land, complete these projects and save our waters for our future, for our children and grandchildren.
Mark Perry is executive director of Stuart-based Florida Oceanographic Society.