OKEECHOBEE — There was good news at the Dec. 11 meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries: Septic-to-sewer projects are planned in Glades and Okeechobee counties. There was also some bad news with the report on flooding south of the lake.
Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief said Okeechobee County is working on extending sewer lines along the Rim Canal to Okee-Tantie. Not only will it take a lot of septic tanks off the Rim Canal, it will also remove the Okee-Tantie package plant, which is inside the Herbert Hoover Dike, he said.
He said if Bass Pro could get some of the state and federal agencies to expedite their permitting, they could start construction soon on the renovations at Okee-Tantie.
“We got just north of $5 million in two grants for septic-to-sewer projects,” said Glades County Commissioner Tony Whidden. “That will definitely improve the water quality.”
“When Tropical Storm Eta came through, we saw about a $320 million loss because of all the flooding,” reported Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay. Hundley Farms in Belle Glade lost 500 acres of crops shortly before Thanksgiving, which is one of the biggest market times of year.
She said she is glad the Florida Senate president is going to focus on storage north of the lake.
Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford Jr. expressed frustration with the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Operating Manual (LOSOM) Project Delivery Team meetings.
“I am extremely frustrated with how the process is going,” said Watford, who represents the city on the LOSOM PDT. “I always felt like I am fairly average intelligence and I think I have been to all of the PDT meetings,” he continued.
“I almost feel like the corps of engineers has tried to make this process so complicated and so long that we’re all going to get tired of it and sort of give up on it and let it be what it is,” he said. “I think we all know, if we are honest with ourselves, the ideal level for the lake is 12.5 to 15.5 feet.” He said the environmentalists, biologists and fishermen agree that is the best schedule for he lake’s ecosystem.
“The problem is how we get to that level,” he added.
“Today the lake is at 16.04 feet,” Lt. Col. Todd Polk of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the coalition. He said the lake was at 11 feet at the start of the wet season, and they started the summer concerned about water supply, but heavy rainfall in October and November pushed the lake up to 16.4 feet.
He said they can’t move water south because so much rainfall fell south of the lake during Tropical Storm Eta, the water conservation areas are 2 feet above schedule, he said.
Water releases east and west have been able slowly reverse the lake’s rise. On Friday, the lake was just above 16 feet.
Polk said in February the corps will reassess this year’s lake management plan.
He said they are concerned about the damaging effects of high water levels on the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). They are also concerned about the nesting areas for snail kites and about harmful algal blooms (HAB).
“This year were able to keep the algal blooms at minimum,” he added.
Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief pointed out that when there is algae in the lake, they are concerned about releasing water to the St. Lucie Canal, but when the St. Lucie Canal is higher than the lake, they don’t seem to be concerned about algae in the water that flows into the lake.
“Why weren’t they concerned about the algae when the water was running the other way?” he asked.
“We were concerned but it was still running that way,” said Polk. He said the corps has the difficult task of maintaining a dynamic system.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said the Army Corps historically had always been charged with water quantity and the state was charged with water quality. She asked Polk for an update on “the elephant in the room,” the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir.
“We have the money we need for the planning,” said Polk. “The planning and design effort is continuing. We’re not delayed but construction is ultimately waiting on appropriation.”
He said if the funding is there, the corps’ plan is to initiate construction in 2021 and complete construction in 2027. Polk explained they can start construction on one part of the reservoir project while other parts are still in the design phase.
Jennifer Reynolds of the South Florida Water Management District said the EAA stormwater treatment area (STA) is under construction by SFWMD. She said the EAA STA project is fully funded.
The construction began in April. The final construction contract should be awarded in February.
The EAA reservoir water reservation was agreed upon at the Dec. 11 SFWMD meeting, she explained.
In other business, Reynolds said the Nubbin Slough STA is being repaired. It is scheduled to be complete in 2021. She said SFWMD will work with Okeechobee County to find ways to route additional stormwater into this STA.
“There is a lot of activity going on with dispersed water management,” Reynolds added. Two new water farms should be ready for use next year. She said the dispersed water projects on private land are important because they can provide more immediate relief to high water problems while the district waits for the larger water storage projects to come online.