November 25, 2016
Focus restoration efforts north of Lake Okeechobee — not south
note: Samuel E. Poole III, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who served as executive
director of the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 to 1999,
responds to the Nov. 15 column "New reservoir needed to stop algae
blooms'' by Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
agree with everything in Erik Eikenberg's column concerning Everglades
restoration except his priority of treating Lake Okeechobee's nutrient problems
after they enter the lake. Our first priority must be stopping the nutrients
from entering the lake.
Lake Okeechobee receives about five times the 105 tons of
phosphorus per year limit, and nearly all of that phosphorus enters the lake
with stormwater from suburban and agricultural development as far north as
Orlando. My more than 40 years of experience addressing environmental
consequences of development in Florida has taught me that complicated
engineering projects are seldom the best response to the unanticipated problems
created by complicated engineering projects. Filling in the channel dug through
the Kissimmee River is the most successful environmental restoration project in
the United States. The takeaway is that undoing mistakes is often more
effective than building and maintaining another project to treat the mistake.
For Lake Okeechobee, this means going upstream as close to the
source of the stormwater runoff as possible. This also means working with the
owners of roughly 1 million acres of undeveloped land remaining in the
watershed to undo the drainage ditches and canals sending water to Lake Okeechobee
and to hold and clean up stormwater on their land. Using a market-based system
known as a fee for environmental services, landowners are compensated based on
their effectiveness in holding and treating stormwater.
Regulation alone has not prevented damage to our lakes, rivers,
bays and aquifers. Supplementing our regulatory system with a fee for
environmental services approach is a rational alternative to more big
This approach is not new to Florida. The Florida Ranchlands Environmental
Services Project proved the concept in the Lake Okeechobee watershed. Although
the program lost leadership and focus with cuts in the South Florida Water
Management District budgets, it still exists.
Cost comparisons between government purchasing thousands of
acres of land; designing, permitting and constructing; and then maintaining,
operating and making corrective modifications to big engineering systems in
perpetuity, and paying private landowners to produce clean water crops continue
to evolve. It is clear that service payments to landowners will need to make
the business of dispersed water management competitive with other uses of land,
including agriculture and development. In its mature form, fee for services
could allow a mix of uses on small and light footprints, with the majority of
the landscape available for water storage and treatment.
Five points are clear when comparing another big engineering fix
south of Lake Okeechobee and fee for services water storage and treatment north
of Lake Okeechobee:
• Dispersed storage and treatment can be scaled up and have
• Design, permitting and construction of a 60,000-acre storage
and treatment system will take years before it's fully operational.
• Holding and treating stormwater north of the lake will help
the estuaries and allow the lake to begin recovery, including cycling out the
legacy nutrients in lake sediments.
• Storing and treating stormwater south of the lake will help
the estuaries but allow Lake Okeechobee to continue to receive very high
• If the storage and treatment capacity of the lake's watershed
is restored, the important reconnection of Lake Okeechobee with the sawgrass
Everglades would be a different project — more like a natural flow way and less
like a new lake south of Lake Okeechobee.
Finally, holding stormwater for aquifer recharge instead of
dumping it into the estuaries could ease Central Florida's concern about future
water supplies. I have experienced too many big engineering fixes to believe
that "this time we will get it right."
E. Poole III is a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and served as executive director of
the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 to 1999.