Plans for water storage north of Lake Okeechobee have hit another snag.
At the Nov. 18 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District, SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett said the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LORWP) will not be included in funding from the 2022 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which funds the federal portion of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) as well as other water projects across the country. Congress can pass a WRDA every two years, but in the past Congress has gone as long as seven years between WDRAs.
CERP is a federal-state partnership, to be funded 50-50.
LOWRP includes aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells as well as two wetlands restoration projects on the Kissimmee River. ASR wells pump clean freshwater about 1,000 feet below the surface into the Floridan aquifer. This is not the same aquifer used for water supply. Most wells dug for water supply are surficial wells dug about 100 feet deep.
For ASR wells, water is treated to drinking water standards – as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency – before it is pumped into the aquifer, where the freshwater creates a bubble in the slightly brackish water of the Floridan aquifer. That same freshwater can be pumped out of the ASR bubble when needed for water supply.
In 2019, the Florida Legislature decided to jump start northern storage by putting $50 million into the project. In 2020 the state kicked in another $50 million. In 2021, the Legislature passed legislation that pledges $50 million a year in state funds until the project is completed.
The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan was initially considered for the 2020 WRDA. When that deadline was missed, it was previously on track to be included in the 2022 WRDA.
“On Nov. 7, Secretary Connor at the corps of engineers sent a letter to our congressional legislation conveying they had significant concerns with arsenic liberation in the aquifer as well as the high operational and maintenance costs (of the aquifer storage and recovery wells), and that they needed to work through those concerns and the chief’s report would not be ready for WRDA 2022.
“The state has significant appropriations and even a state law regarding the implementation of LOWRP, expressing our interest in northern storage. I’ve been talking with all levels of the corps, from headquarters down to Jacksonville to convey our interest in making sure that we do have a path forward for northern storage and that we need to come to an understanding and address their concerns and continue to make progress.
“We will continue to work on that,” Bartlett continued.
“We are continuing to implement our ASR program, following our science plan, so we are not deterred in producing that northern storage, but the importance of buyoff is critical for cost share purposes,” Bartlett said.
The SFWMD meeting also brought bad news about delays in the C-43 reservoir, a water storage reservoir near the Caloosahatchee River which is designed to capture excess flow from the river in the wet season, then clean the water and release it back to the river as needed in the dry season.
“Regarding the C-43 project, that remains delayed with really no additional movement from the contractor in improving their productivity. While their work is good quality and the company has an impeccable safety record, the company projects completion almost a year after the contract delivery date, which makes that early 2025,” he explained.
“Chauncey (SFWMD Governing Board Chair Chauncey Goss) and I did meet with the CEO on Oct. 7 at the site. He expressed commitment to deliver a quality project,” said Bartlett.
The district is continuing to honor the contract that was signed by both parties and is continuing to hold the contractor to that contract, he said.
SFWMD and U.S, Army Corps of Engineers scientists have estimated about 1 million acre feet of water storage is needed north of Lake Okeechobee to address the runoff from the watershed that starts just south of Orlando. The ASRs in the LOWRP project include about 300,000 acre feet of storage.
ASRs have been used in Florida and all over the United States for more than 40 years.