OKEECHOBEE — Are St. Lucie County’s water supply and water quality needs taking a back seat to the needs of other communities?
St. Lucie Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson had questions for the South Florida Water Management District executive director Drew Bartlett at the Feb. 7 meeting of the County Coalition for the Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon.
She referred to changes she has seen in the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS), which shows when the various Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects are scheduled to start. The most recent IDS update was Oct. 19, 2019.
The St. Lucie County commissioner asked why water storage features in her county have been repeatedly delayed, and why a canal to send water from her county to the C-44 reservoir in Martin County – and to Lake Okeechobee in time of drought – has been prioritized.
“We’ve heard cooperation,” she said. “We’ve heard transparency. We’ve heard trust. We’ve heard lots of things like ‘let’s partner.’ I’m going to kind of call you out.
“Usually when you are all of the above, people know, and I mean stakeholders. And this group (the county coalition) has probably been one of the longest groups besides state agencies that has been here and has stood their ground.
“I am going to ask you for who, what, where, when and why,” she said. One of things down the road at the bottom of the IDS list was the intersect connect from the C-23 to the C-44, she continued. “When I saw the Oct. 19 IDS without any input that I am aware of, short of a workshop that I have watched several times, not once have I seen that interconnect brought up to a priority list, and now it is funded and ready for construction according to the schedule for next year,” she continued.
“Who recommended that it jump up in priority over everything else?” she asked.
“Who approved it, based on what information?
“Where did the funding come from? … Basically who did you rob, to get it?
“Define to me why the Savings Clause is being used as the reason,” she continued. “Was this done in cooperation with the corps? Why haven’t any of the stakeholders been part of this discussion?”
Mr. Bartlett said the intersect is part of the Central Everglades project … “that is how we get water from Lake Okeechobee south instead of being discharged to the estuaries.
“As that project was being developed over its three or four year public interaction, the Savings Clause came into play because it was pulling water from Lake Okeechobee.
“One way to remedy and implement the Savings Clause was to find another reservoir in the area that could be used to supplement water in times of drought. That’s where the C-44 water became identified as a source of water to supplement Lake Okeechobee in times of drought.
“To make sure C-44 had enough water in it, the intersect was put on the IDS,” he said.
“It’s on our side of the ledger,” he said, noting it will be paid for by the state funds designated for CERP projects.
“Explain to me why that is being done before the reservoirs of C-23 and C-24,” said Commissioner Hutchison.
She said the C-23 and C-24 projects are continually being pushed out.
In the most recent IDS, those reservoirs were moved ahead, said Mr. Bartlett. He said they are now purchasing land for those projects.
“Those projects went five steps back and forward one. They have gone nowhere except backwards,” said Commissioner Hutchinson. She said the funding and the plan keeps changing. “I am not going to be grateful for one step forward, when you put me back 20. I am getting word smithed to pieces,” she said. She said the property in St. Lucie County was purchased in the 1990s. The project was delayed for funding. Then other projects needed to be done first. Then they went out and did further investigation and they have to buy more land, she continued.
“Now I’ve got a lot more property that has gone off the tax rolls along with property that was taken off tax rolls that will not be used,” the St. Lucie Commissioner continued. She said other counties have seen the same thing happen, with the state purchasing land, taking it off the tax rolls, and then not using the property for the promised water storage and treatment projects.
“You find funds to run an interconnect from St. Lucie County down to the C-44. For what? You’re going to take my county’s water, which needs cleaning, you’re going to divert it down there, without St. Lucie County having the ability for storage, for water supply if needed, for drought if needed.
“Not one person has come to St. Lucie County and discussed with us, what about our water levels? What happens when we go into drought? We’ve been begging for that storage,” she said.
“You start putting that dirty water (into the C-44 canal), and my county will get blamed for polluting the estuary and everything else,” she said.
Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation commended Commissioner Hutchison for fighting for St. Lucie County’s water supply.
“If you look at that IDS, the truth of the matter is, as somebody who is living in St. Lucie County, what I see is we’re getting a canal to divert our water elsewhere while we still – because of cost, construction time lines, having to fight for federal government dollars, etc. – we do not have our reservoirs in place.”
She said she is concerned the district will give away St. Lucie County’s water supply if they don’t have enough water in Lake Okeechobee to ‘send it south’ to make CERP work.
What is the ‘Savings Clause’?
The U.S. Department of the Interior explains the Savings Clause this way: The federal Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2000 includes a Savings Clause that is generally designed to protect legal sources of water and levels of flood protection that existed on the date of enactment of the law. The pre-CERP base line will specify the hydrology that will serve as the basis for enforcing the Savings Clause, as well as the benchmark for calculating project benefits.