SFWMD takes lead on water storage north of Lake O

Posted 4/24/23

The State of Florida is taking the lead on a plan to store more water north of Lake Okeechobee.

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SFWMD takes lead on water storage north of Lake O


OKEECHOBEE -- The State of Florida is taking the lead on a plan to store more water north of Lake Okeechobee.

Meetings area planned for Thursday, April 27 at Indian River State College Dixon Hendry Campus, 2229 NW 9th Ave., Okeechobee, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. The  events will each start with a one-hour open house followed by a one-hour meeting.

The meetings will also be available online at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The Lake Okeechobee Component A Reservoir (LOCAR) is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). CERP is funded through a 50-50 federal/state partnership, with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) acting as the federal partner and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) acting as the state partner.

Storage north of Lake Okeechobee has always been key to CERP. The historic Everglades starts at Shingle Creek just south of Orlando. The ditching, draining and diking for the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF) made it possible for millions of people to live and work in South Florida. These projects also mean rain that falls in the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee moves much faster than nature intended and comes into the lake much higher in nutrient load than nature intended. (The phosphorus and nitrogen in this water can feed harmful algae blooms.)

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, before flood control, water that fell at the top of the system took about six months to slowly sheetflow south into Lake Okeechobee. Thanks to the flood control projects, water now rushes – and is sometimes pumped – rapidly into Lake Okeechobee. The Herbert Hoover Dike, a flood control project, also left the lake’s available footprint about one-third smaller. The government diked the property in public ownership. Before the lake was diked, in high water years, the waters from the lake would spread out, flooding the surrounding area, including property in private ownership.

Moving the floodwater so quickly off the land to protect the areas north of the lake developed by humans results in the lake rising quickly, which damages the lake’s ecology. The flood control system also uses the Caloosahatchee River to the west of the big lake and the St. Lucie Canal/St. Lucie River east of the lake to send some of that water to tide. This means the rapid inflow of freshwater into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie disrupts the salinity levels in the estuaries, damaging the ecology of the estuaries and leaving them more vulnerable to blue-green algal blooms

Moving the water quickly also means it is higher in nutrient load. Before flood control, water sheetflowed slowly and was naturally cleaned by vegetation. CERP includes projects to store water north of the lake to help slow the flow into the lake.

According to information shared at SFWMD meetings, about 1 million acre feet of water storage is needed north of Lake Okeechobee to restore a more natural flow to the lake and protect the coastal estuaries from harmful lake releases.

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) – a plan to store water north of the lake and clean it before it is released into the Big O – was in the CERP plan approved by Congress in 2000, but LOWRP was put on hold in 2006.

The project was restarted 2016, and initially included a large, shallow reservoir (depths up to 4 feet) in Glades County, as well as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells and restoration of two wetlands areas on the Kissimmee River (Central and Paradise Run).

Most of the water storage capacity in the project was in the ASRs (about 300,000 acre-feet of storage). 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.

The project was initially on track to be considered in the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), but stalled in 2019 when the newly-appointed SFWMD governing board delayed signing off on the USACE project.

WRDA provides federal funding for USACE water projects. Congress can pass a WRDA every two years, but in some cases has gone longer – as long as seven years – between passing a WRDA.

Although LOWRP missed the deadline for the 2020 WRDA, in 2019 Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature opted to kick start the project by providing $50 million a year in state funds, with the goal of storing more water north of the lake. As most of the water storage in LOWRP is in the ASRs, and the land needed for the ASRs was already in state ownership, SFWMD began work on these wells, starting with core samplings of proposed sites.

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.

Following objections from landowners and the Seminole Tribe of Florida about the proposed placement of the reservoir near Buckhead Ridge, the project was reworked, removing that component. The project appeared to be on track for inclusion in the 2022 WRDA, but was again delayed.

On Jan. 10, 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order 23-06 (Achieving Even More Now for Florida’s Environment) to further expedite restoration projects and advance the protection of Florida’s natural resources. In the order, the South Florida Water Management District is directed to make every effort to advance Everglades restoration projects to ensure meaningful progress over the next four years, including all Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) storage components within the Lake Okeechobee watershed.

SFWMD is also conducting a Feasibility Study and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for  LOCAR. The Feasibility Study and EIS will explore opportunities for aboveground water storage north of Lake Okeechobee with an estimated water storage capacity of 200,000 acre-feet. The purpose of this reservoir is to store excess water in the northern watersheds and release the excess water at times when it is beneficial for the region. This increased storage capacity will reduce the duration and frequency of both high and low water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which are harmful to Lake Okeechobee’s ecology. With these improvements to Lake Okeechobee levels, the reservoir will help reduce the likelihood of harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the northern estuaries.

Lake Okeechobee, reservoir