The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board that took office in 2019 has been in the news in recent months celebrating progress on Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects authorized by their predecessors. They were on hand for events at the C-44 and C-43 reservoir sites and have publicly congratulated themselves on “fast tracking” projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir, which was authorized in 2017 by Florida Senate Bill 10.
They have not been so quick to approve new projects.
On Jan. 27, Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation called on members of the public to urge the SFWMD to send letters of support to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWPR) and the Loxahatchee River Restoration Project.
Corps seeks SFWMD support
The corps requested a letter of support for LOWRP in November 2019 and a letter of support for the Loxahatchee project in December 2019. So far, the governing board has taken no action on either one. CERP requires a state-federal cost share, so the projects must have a state sponsor.
“The deadline is looming for this step which is required to get Federal Cost Share dollars in the WRDA 2020. These important projects can still be adjusted in the ongoing planning process,” explained Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation on Jan. 27.
Erica Skolte, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said there is still time for the SFWMD to send the letters of support.
“The Corps hasn’t received the letters of support from SFWMD to date,” she explained on Jan. 28. “Although we do have some concern about meeting the Chief of Engineer’s report deadline at the end of May, both projects continue to progress through the corps review process. The Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project will be out for state and agency review in the next several weeks. The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project is under policy review by corps headquarters. It is important to note that these projects, if the Chief of Engineer’s report is complete by end of May, may be under consideration for authorization by Congress, which does not include appropriations/funding for construction.”
(UPDATE: As of Jan. 31, the corps had not yet received the letters of support.)
Mast opposes LOWRP
At the Nov. 14, SFWMD governing board meeting, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asked the board to support both LOWRP.
LOWRP includes 448,000 acre feet of storage per year via aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells and about 43,000 acre-feet of storage in a large, shallow reservoir.
At that meeting, Tim Gysan, LOWRP senior project manager, said the ASR wells will act as an insurance policy which will make it possible to better manage Lake Okeechobee in both heavy rainfall years and in drought years.
“LOWRP is the only CERP project that influences the timing and distribution of water entering Lake Okeechobee, which is key to Everglades restoration, estuary protection and water supply,” he explained.
He said the pilot project in the Kissimmee River area showed nearly 100 percent recovery of the water from the ASR wells, but for planning purposes they used a very conservative estimate.
Col. Kelly said the ASRs will be phased in and studied as they go. “It’s not all or nothing,” he said.
At that meeting, it was indicated the board members could meet with SFWMD staff to answer any questions they have about ASRs. But to date, no letter of support has been sent.
At that meeting, Florida Senator Gayle Harrell urged the governing board to support LOWRP. She said northern storage is critical to reducing harmful freshwater releases to the coastal estuaries.
“This is one of the times that ‘slow the flow’ makes sense, that is what you want to do,” said Thomas Van Lent of the Everglades Foundation. However, he said he was not in favor of the LOWRP.
At the Rivers Coalition meeting on Nov. 20, 2019, governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippish said the SFWMD governing board has “pushed off giving direction on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed project.”
She said SFWMD is being pressured by the Florida Senate to move forward with LOWRP. “Two letters came from the Senate on this project. They want this. We have to remember that all of this stuff is political.
“You cannot fight against it 100 percent or you will lose,” she said. “You have got to find a way to get what you want while working within the politics.”
In December, U.S. Congressman Brian Mast sent a letter to the SFWMD in opposition of LOWRP. In the Dec. 11 letter to SFWMD executive director Drew Bartlett, Congressman Mast claimed LOWRP “could jeopardize the timely completion of the Everglades Agricultural Area storage reservoir project which provides far greater benefits to reduce harmful discharges and restore the Everglades.”
Congressman Mast is not the first to attempt to pit one CERP project against another. In 2016, the Everglades Foundation published a study that purportedly compared the benefits of the northern and southern storage projects. At the time, both SFWMD and corps officials responded that comparing the two was not a useful exercise because both northern AND southern storage are needed.
In a May 7, 2019 meeting of the lake area counties in May, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds called it the “myth of competition.” The projects are not competing against each other, she explained. The CERP projects all work together.
Loxahatchee River project also waiting on letter
The SFWMD governing board has yet to send a letter of support to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Loxahatchee River Restoration Project, despite what appeared to be overwhelming support for the project at their December 2019 meeting.
At their Dec. 12 meeting, the support for the Loxahatchee River Restoration appeared to be widespread. Jennifer Leeds, SFWMD Interim Director for the Everglades Policy and Coordination, said this is a CERP project which requires a letter of support from the SFWMD in order for the corps to move forward.
Before the Herbert Hoover Dike was built, a portion of the water that sheetflowed south from Lake Okeechobee went east, making up the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, she explained. When that flow was cut off, it created environmental problems in the watershed.
She said because there is not sufficient freshwater flow, the river has experienced saltwater intrusion.
The Loxahatchee restoration project has an estimated cost of $740 million. It includes a reservoir, four aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells, flow way restoration and water control structures.
“The Loxahatchee River is a very, very significant body. It’s a very significant resource and we need to do everything we can to push it forward,” said Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Center.
“Our governing board voted unanimously to wholeheartedly support the tentatively selected plan,” said Aubrey Arrington of the Loxahatchee River District. “I think it is a good plan. I really hope you will send your letter of support.”
“Loxahatchee is a treasure right here in our back yard,” said SFWMD governing board member Jay Steinle. “The river needs our support to remain the treasure that it is. It’s another interesting example of trying to solve problems that we created years ago. Let’s move forward with this.”
“We’re blessed to have budgeting and political will to move these things forward,” agreed governing board member Scott Wagner. “I feel really blessed to be here, to be in a position to move these things forward.”
“My passion for Loxahatchee started about 65 years ago,” said governing board member Ron Bergeron. “It is a great honor for me sitting here today to vote on protecting this area.
“I am truly in support of this,” said Mr. Bergeron.
“We have an incredible economy right now,” said Cheryl Meads. “I want to remind everyone of the importance to move very quickly.” She said when projects are put on the shelf, money is lost.
“I definitely heard an overwhelming support to see that this project is poised for authorization,” said SFWMD executive director Drew Bartlett at that meeting. But to date, the corps is still waiting for the SFWMD letter of support.
Mast initially supported both
To confuse the issue even more, Rep. Mast initially supported both LOWRP and the Loxahatchee project. During the 115th Congress (2017-2019) Congressman Brian Mast sponsored HR 2415. The bill summary states: “This bill directs the Department of the Army to expedite completion of the reports for the following projects in Florida and to expedite completion of construction of the projects it determines are feasible: Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoirs, Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, and Western Everglades Restoration Project.”
SFWMD meets Saturday
The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board will meet Saturday, Feb. 1, in the Port St. Lucie City Hall, 121 S.W. Port St., St. Lucie.