JACKSONVILLE – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invites public comment on the revised Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), now through April 4.
The original plan for LOWRP included a wetland attenuation feature (WAF), 80 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells and two wetland restoration areas. The 13,000 acre WAF would have held water up to 4-feet high in the wet season, with water receding with the level of Lake Okeechobee in the dry season, and would have cost nearly $1 billion. Due to concerns about cost and objections from landowners, Glades County officials and the Seminole Tribe, the WAF was dropped from the plan in 2021.
The revised plan includes restoration of two wetlands near the Kissimmee River. The Kissimmee River Center wetland will cover about 1,200 acres. Currently about 11% of the land is in public ownership. The Paradise Run wetland will cover about 4,700 acres. Currently about 59% of the land is in public ownership.
The revised plan also reduces the number of ASRs from 80 to 55. This removes from the plan the 25 ASRs which would have been co-located with the WAF. The remaining 55 ASR wells will have the capacity to store 308,000 acre feet of water per year. That is about 86 billion gallons of water, the equivalent to about 7 inches on Lake Okeechobee. Before water is pumped into ASR wells, it will be cleaned to drinking water standards, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Bob Verrastro, SFWMD principal hydrogeologist, the ASR wells will pump water about 1,000 feet below the surface into the Floridan aquifer. He said this is not the same aquifer used for wells used for drinking water. Most wells dug for water supply are surficial wells dug about 100 feet deep, he explained. While the surficial wells are recharged annually and impacted by rainfall events, it takes thousands of years for water to percolate through the earth into the Floridan aquifer. The clean freshwater makes a bubble in the slightly brackish Floridan aquifer. This water can be pumped back out when needed for water supply.
According to the Florida Engineering Society, ASR is more cost-effective than other means of storing water. Comparing ASRs to other CERP projects:
The revised LOWRP will provide about a third of the storage needed north of Lake O. At the Oct. 14, 2021, meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, SFWMD Board Director of Ecosystem Restoration and Capital Projects Jennifer Reynolds said about 1 million acre feet of storage is needed in addition to the projects already in construction or completed.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, before the ditches and canals were dug for flood control, water that fell at the top of the watershed near Kissimmee slowly sheet-flowed south into Lake Okeechobee. That process took six months, and along the way some of the water evaporated into the air or percolated into the ground, recharging the aquifer. The slow sheetflow through vegetation also cleaned the water before it entered the lake. Now, water that falls in Kissimmee flows rapidly south, reaching the lake in a matter of weeks.
Storing water north of the lake would benefit Lake Okeechobee by reducing the high water levels that destroy the lake’s marshes and submerged aquatic vegetation. Northern storage would also reduce the need for harmful freshwater releases to tide via the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River.
Review the Draft Revised Project Implementation Report and Environmental Impact Statement (PIR/EIS) regarding the revised recommended plan at www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOWRP. Public comments can be emailed to OkeechobeeWatershedRestoration@usace.army.mil.
Printed copies of the report are also available at: Okeechobee County Public Library, 206 S.W. 16th Street, Okeechobee, FL 34974; Blake Library, 2351 SE Monterey Road, Stuart, FL 34996; and, Fort Myers Regional Library, 2450 First Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901.