FORT MYERS — “My future depends on a healthy Lake Okeechobee,” Olivia Williams of the Clewiston Future Farmers of America (FFA) said to the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board at members’ Nov. 14 meeting. “We need to seriously consider the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan (LOWRP).
“It would be a shame if future generations never have the opportunity to enjoy the lake as I have,” she said. “I encourage the SFWMD to slow the flow to Lake Okeechobee.”
Clewiston high school students traveled to Fort Myers for the Nov. 14 SFWMD meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University, with signs encouraging the district to “slow the flow” of water into the big lake. Many others in attendance also asked the board to support LOWRP.
“Get the lake right, the system will be right. Ninety-seven percent of the water going into Lake Okeechobee comes from north of the lake,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida. “Slow the flow. Clean the water.” Five hundred metric tons of phosphorus goes into the lake from north of the lake every year, he said. The excess freshwater that is released to the coastal estuaries comes from north of the lake.
“Phosphorus comes from north of the lake. Until you get north of the lake right, we are going to have the algae blooms,” he said.
“I urge you to please move forward with the northern storage. It is essential,” said Florida Sen. Gayle Harrell.
“Water is liquid gold,” she said. “We need to be as judicious as possible to store water at appropriate places.
“Storage north of the lake is critical part of Everglades restoration,” said Sen. Harrell.
“We are hopeful we are going to get a WRDA (Water Resources Development Act) in 2020,” said Pete Quasius of Audubon of the Western Everglades. “We need to store water north and south of the lake. We need to complete our water quality projects.
“Move forward with the projects that will make a difference,” he said.
“This is a good project,” he said. “For relatively little money we can put a million acre-feet of water underground. This is insurance water so we can keep the lake lower and allow grass to grow.”
Tim Gysan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers senior project manager, said the water storage provided by the aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells included in LOWRP will help slow the flow of water into Lake Okeechobee and reduce the risk of water shortages if there is a drought.
LOWRP is the only Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) project that influences the timing and distribution of water entering Lake Okeechobee, he explained. It provides one of the only opportunities to affect the timing of water moving into the lake.
Planning for the project started in 2000, he said. It was put on hold in 2006; planning started again in 2016.
The main source of the water coming into the lake is the Kissimmee River, Mr. Gysan said. The project includes 80 ASR wells, a shallow storage reservoir and two areas of wetlands restoration.
The geology of the area limits the availability of deep storage north of the lake, he explained. The original plan called for 200 ASRs north of the lake, but their studies found they can only implement 80 ASRs north of the lake. “We have to look at locations that aren’t interfering with other users,” he said. “Our scientists are very confident we can implement this number without any concerns it will impact the aquifer.”
Mr. Gysan said LOWRP has been discussed during more than 50 agency and public engagements in past three years.
He said the public feedback encouraged the corps to maximize use of state-owned land, consider the loss the tax revenue to counties north of the lake and preserve cultural resources.
LOWRP would include a shallow reservoir with a footprint of about 13,600 acres to store up to 46,000 acre-feet of water; 80 ASR wells with storage capacity of 448,000 acre-feet of water per year; restoration of the Kissimmee River Center wetland of about 1,200 acres; and, restoration of the 3,500-acre Paradise Run wetland. Cost is estimated at $1.9 billion.
Mr. Gysan said the ASRs can be built on property the state already owns. He said they conservatively estimate they can recover 70 percent of the freshwater pumped into the ASRs. The test wells had a recovery rate of nearly 100 percent.
Added to other authorized CERP projects, LOWRP will reduce the harmful freshwater releases to coastal estuaries by about 80 percent, he said.
Mr. Gysan said the corps is preparing the final report to send to Washington, D.C. The corps has asked for a letter of support from SFWMD.
SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett said the letter of support in November doesn’t require a governing board vote.
“I want ASRs to work,” said governing board member Jay Steinle. He noted the ASRs are just 20 percent of the cost for LOWRP and provide 80 percent of the storage.
“I am for them. I want to say yes,” said board member Carlos “Charlie” Martinez. “At the same time, it’s a big project.”
Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the corps plans to use a phased approach to the ASRs and study the use of the wells.
“We’d like to get started,” he said.
“It’s not all or nothing,” Col. Kelly added. “We’re not popping 80 wells in all at one time. We’re going to try to put them in the right places.”
Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley encouraged the corps and SFWMD to consider the impact to the rural counties when a state or federal project removes land from the property tax rolls.
“I wish you would help us with the legislature and try to get some compensation,” he said. The water the project will store in Glades County is coming from all of the counties to the north, he said.
“For us, this project is critical,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner. She said ASRs are proven technology.
“There have been decades of study on ASR wells not just in Florida but across the country,” she said. The mayor noted that with above-ground reservoirs, water is lost to evaporation. That doesn’t happen with ASRs, she said.
“When you look at ASR wells and how well they work, it is a good investment,” she said.
More than 1,000 people are moving to Florida every day, said Mrs. Gardner. The demand for water will continue to grow. The ASRs will make it possible to store water rather than hurt the estuaries by sending excess freshwater to tide.
“People come to Lake Okeechobee from all over the world,” said professional bass fisherman Scott Martin. He said LOWRP will help the lake by slowing the flow of water into the lake which will help keep the lake level within the range that is most beneficial to the lake’s ecology, while at the same time preventing harmful discharges to the coasts.
“Above-ground storage facilities are great,” he said. “But when we have a high water year, those retention areas are full.
“ASR wells will be great because of the amount of water we can store and the amount of water we can recover,” he added.
Mr. Martin said keeping the lake level in the beneficial range (12 feet to 15 feet) will help the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) to recover.
“When I was a kid, the vegetation went out a mile. That filtered the water in Lake Okeechobee,” said Mr. Martin. He said they once had more than 100,000 acres of SAV.
“Last year we had 5,000 acres of SAV left,” he added.
High water levels hurt the lake and kill the SAV, he said. Occasional low levels can be beneficial, but if the water goes below 11 feet too often, it can also damage SAV.
“Water coming in fast is what does damage to the lake more than anything because it floods out the grass,” he said.
ASR wells will slow the flow and allow the lake to rise up slowly as it did before the man-made channels funneled the water quickly into the lake.
In a drought, ASRs will allow us to put water back into the lake, he said.
Managing the lake level to mimic the historic highs and lows will encourage more growth of the natural vegetation, Mr. Martin said. The restored marshes around the edge of the lake will act as a giant storm water treatment area (STA).
“The grass will filter the lake water for free,” he said.
“We fully support these wells because it will slow the flow, help the grass and help the wildlife,” he said.
“The National Academy of Sciences did not say don’t do ASR,” said Rich Budell of the Budell Water Group. “They said to phase it in, which is exactly what corps and your staff plans to do. We can achieve significant discharges in releases from Lake Okeechobee with this project.”
“I live on the South Fork of the St. Lucie River,” said Ernie Barnett of the Florida land Council. “Discharges from Lake Okeechobee affect me personally and professionally.
“I worked on developing the original CERP,” Mr. Budell continued. He said storage is needed north of the lake as well as south.
“This is not either or,” he said. “You need to do both.”
Mr. Budell said there are 105 wells in operation today all over the state of Florida. There is a regulatory safety net. FDEP provides oversight of the ASRs.
He said the water is cleaned to drinking water standards before it is pumped into the ASR. About 80 to 90 percent of that clean water is recovered.
“This is one of the safest technologies and we simply cannot stop the discharges without it,” he said.
Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau encouraged the board members to talk to SFWMD staff. Bob Verrastro is one of the most knowledgeable people on ASRs, he said.
Mr. Ritter said ASRs could be used to keep the STAs hydrated during dry periods, which will improve the function of the STAs.
While some SFWMD board members said they needed more information before backing the LOWRP project, newest board member Ben Butler said he has been following the ASR discussion since 1999.
“ASR technology is the biggest bang for the buck,” he said.
Mr. Butler said phasing in the wells will give the corps and the district a chance to see how well ASR works in the area north of the lake. He said there are safeguards built in.
“I think the technology is going to work,” said Mr. Butler.
“I do have some concerns,” said board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippish.
“In a perfect world we would create wetlands,” she said. “In a perfect world there would be a flow way south. We have to find a middle place. We have to make this work for all of us so we can move together on Everglades restoration.”
“I understand I am a little bit late to the party due to the nature of our appointments,” said board member Scott Wagner. “I feel like I am learning a lot on the fly about this issue.
“I just have a lot of questions in my mind and I want to get it right,” he said. “I would like to take the time to learn more about it.
“I hear them loud and clear, the fact that the ASRs won’t take a lot of land out of production. Northern storage gives you an opportunity that protects against drought but at the same time not hold the water in the lake,” he said. “It does seem to me it checks all those boxes.”
Board member Charlette Roman said she would also like more information.
“I don’t think we should miss this opportunity to support the corps,” said board member Cheryl Meads. “I think we should always support our partner with a letter of support.”
“We’re all very supportive of doing something north of the lake,” said Chauncey Goss, governing board chair.
“We will continue to work with the corps,” said Mr. Bartlett. In the meantime, staff including Mr. Verrastro will set up an outreach with each of the governing board members to answer the board members’ questions.