OKEECHOBEE – In the coming legislative session, the Florida Senate will consider a proposal to scrap plans for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, according to information shared in Okeechobee on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
“The Florida Senate is largely going to be focused on water quality,” Florida State Senator Ben Albritton told Okeechobee County officials and community members at the Okeechobee County Legislative Delegation hearing on Dec. 9 in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse.
“One of the initiatives that is going to be made ... and I certainly hope ends up being accomplished, is the planned reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is discontinued and a real sum of money is put into northern storage,” he said. “So at the end of the day, if you think about Lake Okeechobee as a bathtub, we control the drain ... but nothing really significiant has happened to the water coming out at the end of the spigot. So the ability to treat that water and store it in the aquifer and pull it back when we need it, and it not be just free-flowed into Lake Okeechobee to continue to compound our problems, makes sense to me,” he said.
Over the past two fiscal years, the State of Florida has given the South Florida Water Management District $100 million to “fast track” parts of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP) in order to expedite storage north of the lake. LOWRP includes 80 Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells, a Wetlands Attenuation Feature (WAF) and some wetlands restoration along the Kissimmee River. ASRs inject water that has been treated to drinking water standards into the aquifer. The WAF will cover about 13,600 acres and hold water up to 4 feet deep. The estimated pricetag for the ASR portion of the project, which includes most of the storage, is $400 million. The ASRs can be built on land the state already owns along the Kissimmee River and other waterways.
LOWRP, like most Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) components, will be funded through at 50-50 partnership between the state and federal governments. LOWRP was approved too late for federal funding through the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The $100 million of “fast track” money will count towards the state’s 50% of the project budget.
Is it even possible to provide enough storage in ASRs to “hold back the waters of Lake Okeechobee,” as the song goes?
While money has always been a limiting factor in completing water storage projects, the geology north of the lake also limits some water storage options. ASRs were added to CERP when geological research found deep storage reservoirs would not work north of the lake. However, research has also shown that while ASRs can be part of the water storage solution, they can’t do it all.
In 2015, the Water Institute at the University of Florida studied south Florida water management needs and concluded about 1.6 million acre-feet of additional storage is needed north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee.
The original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), approved in 2000, included 333 ASR wells that were envisioned to work with other CERP projects. However according to South Florida Water Management District Principal Hydrogeologist Robert Verrastro, since the wells were first proposed, geological research found some areas of Florida are not suitable for ASR wells. He said they narrowed down the list and found 140 ASRs would be “doable” in South Florida. Of those 140 total wells, 80 could be operated safely in the Lake Okeechobee watershed.
Water storage projects around the lake include:
• The 80 ASR wells in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan could provide 448,000 acre-feet of storage a year. LOWRP also includes a wetlands attenuation feature with a capacity of 46,000 acre-feet. Wetlands restoration also included in the project will increase wildlife habitat and provide some water quality improvements but does not increase water storage.
• South of the lake, the EAA reservoir, which is currently in the design phase by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will have a storage capacity of 360,000 acre-feet.
• West of the lake, C-43 Caloosahatchee West Basin reservoir, currently under construction, will have a storage capacity of 170,000 acre-feet of water
• East of the lake, the C-44 Reservoir, also currently under construction, will have storage capacity of 30,000 acre-feet.
That totals 1,054,000 acre-feet of storage, leaving the district more than half a million acre-feet short of the target.
If all of the 140 ASRs that the SFWMD study indicates are possible are built, and if the 60 ASRs that are not in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed can take the same capacity as the ones closer to the lake – which may not be feasible – that would be another 336,000 acre-feet of storage.
Combining the C-44 reservoir, the C-43 reservoir, the EAA reservoir, the LOWRP ASRs and WAF, and the 60 additional ASRs SFWMD deemed “doable” in South Florida, that brings the total potential storage to 1,390,000 acre feet – still more than 200,000 acre feet short of the Water Institute target. That 200,000 acre-feet equals about 65 billion gallons or water or 5.4 inches on Lake Okeechobee.
At the Dec. 9 delegation hearing, local officials encourged the legislators to make decisions based on science. The available science from the corps and SFWMD indicates it’s not possible to put in enough ASR wells north of the lake to compensate for the loss of storage capacity if the EAA reservoir plans are abandoned.