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One Step Closer?

Governor Scott signs new reservoir bill into law.

Gov. Scott signed Senate Bill 10 into law this week. The new law may expedite the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to lessen destructive outflows through the St. Lucie (to the east) and Caloosahatchee rivers (to the west). Many people, including those who have fought for solutions to the Lake O discharges for decades, are expressing relief, joy and skepticism at the prospects for the law and for the construction of the reservoir.

No doubt the popular, grassroots activist groups like Captains for Clean Water, Bullsugar and the Everglades Foundation, which have led the fight to fix the discharges recently, have been encouraged by the passage of the law, but none would claim that the battle has been won. The planned-for new reservoir still needs to proceed through many steps of approval from federal and state agencies before construction begins. Even then, the benefits of the reservoir to South Florida's estuaries and the Everglades remain in question.

The planned-for reservoir is essentially one of the actions in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that was approved way back in 2000, but since then, has been sidetracked and delayed. That's one reason why there's skepticism about it among people who've been battling for CERP and its many projects for decades.

The new law authorizes the state to borrow $800 million to cover Florida's part of what's estimated to be a $1.6 billion cost of the state-federal project. The reservoir would be built on state property, compared to the earlier versions of the plan which called for the state to purchase of agricultural land to build the reservoir.

The plan, as it stands now, is to use a parcel south of Lake O named A2, and perhaps some of A1, to build a 17-foot deep, 14,000 acre storage area. These were parcels originally planned for the reservoir, and federal approval still needs to be granted to authorize the change of the A2 parcel from shallow to deep storage. Additionally, the water in the reservoir will need proper treatment to minimize pollutants before release. A proper plan for conveyance of that water south will have to be established as well, restoring the needed benefits to the Everglades area and reducing the discharges to the estuaries, says Mark Perry, director of the Florida Oceanographic Society.

“Through all the ups and downs of rain and drought over the decades,” Perry says, “the sugar growers have always had perfect conditions for growing their crops because the water is controlled and used for irrigation and perfect drainage. This year, they will have record crops, again because their needs have dictated the flows of water out of Lake O during our dry season of November to May.”

The original plan for the construction of the reservoir when in it was first proposed earlier this year was for it to hold 360,000 acre feet of storage, which is 120 billion gallons of water. Subsequent negotiations reduced the holding capacity to 240,000 acre feet of storage (78 billion gallons), with the potential for it to be increased back to 360,000 acre feet. Despite the compromises, the prospect of the construction of the reservoir still is good and welcome, says Perry.

For a relative understanding of the proposed reservoir's storage size, it's good to know that 1 acre-foot of storage is equal to 325,850 gallons of water. The reservoir's storage size equals that 78 billion gallons. Miami Dade County's use of drinking water is 354,000,000 gallons per day. South Florida's population of 8,000,000 people uses 1.3 billion gallons of drinking water daily. Additionally, the reservoir water will be treated and cycled through and released, so that the storage capacity is dynamic, with water flowing through the reservoir several times during the year.

In 2016, the most recent year of devastating discharges from Lake O, 737 billion gallons of water were released through the rivers to the east and west, causing significant ecological, biological and economic damages to those regions. Additionally, the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) for the production of sugar cane prohibits water from Lake O to reach the Everglades and Florida Bay during the dry season, causing a fresh water shortage and a severe crisis in the health of Florida Bay's seagrasses over the last few years. In 2015, 50,000 acres of seagrasses died in Florida Bay, 10 percent of the 500,000 acres of seagrasses in the entire Florida Bay.

“The root cause of all this is the extreme drainage of the land that became the EAA,” says Perry, of the Florida Oceanographic Society, based in Stuart. “Of the EAA's 700,000 acres of land, 480,000 acres is sugar cane, and all that acreage is kept drained below its historical water level.”

By Perry's estimates, completion of the proposed reservoir would reduce discharges from Lake O to both coasts by “perhaps 40 to 50 percent. But the entire CERP plan, with the EAA reservoir, when completed, would reduce discharges by 90 percent according to agency modeling,” Perry says. “We can't stop putting pressures on our legislators now. We have to completely stop the discharges to the coasts in order to save the estuaries. This reservoir,” he says, “is not going to fix the problem. We have to send all the excess water in the lake south to the Everglades and Florida Bay where it is needed, not to the coastal estuaries.”

Governor Scott's signature makes Senate Bill 10 law, though it doesn't guarantee the completion of the project. Many other agencies need to get involved in the planning and funding of the reservoir's construction, including the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers. The completion of the planning phase for the proposed reservoir appears to be Aug. 1, 2020, and construction could take a couple of years.

Leaders of environmental organizations agree that while the proposed reservoir is an improvement on the Florida legislature's history of inaction on the Lake O fiasco, it is not the complete solution. Pressure, both political and popular, will need to be applied to see that this step is accomplished and more improvements follow.

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