Will state and federal agencies finally focus on water storage north of the Big O?
With the construction underway on the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, will state and federal agencies finally focus on water storage north of the Big O?
“We’re working very hard on northern storage,” said Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor in a Feb. 22 interview. “Things are starting to move quickly. We’re looking at all prospective means of storage.”
Conner said above ground storage north of Lake Okeechobee is still an option, although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed the shallow reservoir feature from the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP). He said they will consider other possible sites for a reservoir north of the lake.
LOWRP still includes aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells and restoration of the Paradise Run wetland adjacent to the Kissimmee River as well as restoration of another wetland area near the Kissimmee River. With dedicated funding from the Florida Legislature, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is working on the ASR wells. LOWRP has not yet been included in a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) for federal funding.
Northern storage is a high priority, said Connor.
A plan is in place to allow SFWMD to expedite the study of options for a reservoir, he explained.
In a Feb. 17 letter to SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett, Connor acknowledged SFWMD’s intent to prepare a feasibility study for a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir is a component in the original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
“SFWMD funds may be accepted by Jacksonville District to undertake Federal Activities and Technical Assistance. I will instruct the Jacksonville District Commander to negotiate and develop a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for Federal Activities, an MOA for Technical Assistance, and scopes of work to be executed under both MOAs, to be approved by the South Atlantic Division Commander,” he wrote.
Why is northern storage so important? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, before the Central & South Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF), rain that fell at the headwaters of the system at Shingle Creek took about six months to slowly sheetflow south into Lake Okeechobee. Along the way, the water was cleaned naturally by vegetation. Some of the water evaporated into the air and percolated into the aquifer.
The C&SF, which included the channelization of the Kissimmee River, speeds the water south in a few weeks. The partial restoration of the middle third of the river, completed in 2021, helped the ecology but did not significantly slow the flow. After Hurricane Ian dumped more than 1 million acre feet of water north of Lake O, the water drained quickly into Lake O. To relieve flooding in Orlando/Kissimmee, giant pumps were installed to move the water even faster. A few weeks later, Hurricane Nicole added to the problem. In just two months, the lake level rose 4 feet.
When water drains that quickly, it’s high in the nutrients that feed algal blooms. Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) data shared at Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Plan meetings proved the phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations in the water entering Lake O are directly tied to the rate of flow. The only way to control the nutrient load entering the lake is to control the flow of water into the lake, FDEP researchers concluded.
In addition, when the lake level rises quickly, it damages the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). SAV is the lake’s natural filter. It also provides critical habitat for fish. When the lake level rises faster than the SAV can grow, the sunlight no longer reaches the SAV.
Northern storage is also needed to prevent harmful freshwater discharges to the coastal estuaries. While the EAA reservoir is one “tool in the toolbox” to reduce coastal discharges, it will not solve the problem, data shows. The EAA reservoir will have a footprint of 10,500 acres and can store water up to 23 feet high for a capacity of about 240,000 acre feet. That’s the equivalent of 6 inches or water on Lake Okeechobee. Also consider: Hurricanes like Ian dump water throughout Florida. If the EAA reservoir had been in place this wet season, some of the capacity would have been taken up by direct rainfall.
Slowing the flow of water into the lake, and cleaning it before it enters the lake would also mean cleaner water leaving the lake, which is important to the ecology downstream of releases.