Corps to seek federal authorization for Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration

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Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/USACE
The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project area is shown on this map. Areas closer to the lake are considered more efficient for water storage.

JACKSONVILLE — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Jacksonville District will post the Final Integrated Project Implementation Report (PIR) and Environmental Impact Statement for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) this week, as the plans for water storage north of Lake Okeechobee move forward.

LOWRP is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and, like all CERP projects, will be cost-shared 50/50 between the State of Florida and the federal government. CERP was authorized by Congress in 2000 to “restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.”

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) is the state partner for CERP projects. USACE is the federal partner.

LOWRP plans started in 2000, but the project was put on hold in 2006. Planning started again in 2016.

The plan includes three features:
• A wetland attenuation feature (WAF) with storage volume of about 46,000 acre-feet: This shallow reservoir will hold water up to about 4 feet deep during the wet season.
• 80 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells with a storage volume of approximately 448,000 acre-feet per year. Water stored in ASR wells can be pumped out and used when needed during dry periods.
• Wetland restoration in two areas on the Kissimmee River — Paradise Run (approximately 3,600 acres) and Kissimmee River Center (approximately 1,200 acres).

Plans also call for public recreation sites in the WAF and wetland restoration sites.

LOWRP Project Manager Tim Gysan explained the project can start as soon as Congress authorizes LOWRP in a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

Congress can pass a WRDA every two years, but has sometimes gone as long as seven years between WRDAs. Congress is expected to pass a WRDA for 2020. If LOWRP is authorized before the vote, it could be included in the 2020 WRDA. If the vote is taken before LOWRP is authorized, the next chance for funding will be in 2022.

Gysan said LOWRP authorization will not take funding away from other authorized CERP projects such as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir. He said the corps follows the CERP Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) and the EAA reservoir is ahead of LOWRP on the IDS.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/USACE
The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project includes a shallow reservoir (up to 4 feet deep) called a Wetland Attenuation Feature, wetland restoration and Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells. The circles on the map show the general locations proposed for the ASR wells. The actual footprint of each cluster would be much smaller. The ASRs can be built on property the state already owns.

“Once we have authorization, the state will be able to move forward with land acquisition,” he explained. SFWMD will wait for authorization from Congress to start negotiating with property owners for the portions of the LOWRP land not currently in state ownership.

Wetlands restoration
Restoration of two historic wetlands is the least controversial part of LOWRP. Approximately 1,200 acres of wetlands will be restored at Kissimmee River Center and about 3,500 acres of wetlands at Paradise Run. Both of these wetland areas were drained by the channelization of the Kissimmee River. Work on this part of the project can start as soon as Congress authorizes LOWRP.

Project features in wetlands restoration are fairly simple structures, Gysan explained. The most difficult part of the wetlands project will be real estate acquisition, he said.

For the Kissimmee River Center wetland, approximately 1,048 acres are private lands (89%) and 133 acres (11%) are public lands. For the Paradise Run wetland, approximately 1,485 acres are private lands (41%) and 2,106 acres are public lands (59%).

WAF
Real estate acquisition will also be critical to the WAF, Gysan said. The state already owns about 32% of the land — approximately 4,200 acres. About 68% — approximately 9,000 acres — is in private ownership. Gysan said it will be probably be 20 years or more before the WAF is built due to the complexities in purchasing the real estate. Some landowners have already indicated they will not be willing sellers. He said the corps has conducted some geological testing on the land already in state ownership and their initial tests indicate the plan for the WAF will function as designed.

Unlike other above-ground reservoirs, the WAF will be a dynamic feature with water levels rising and falling. It is not designed to hold water for long periods of time, he explained. The WAF will hold water in the wet season and feed flow to a cluster of ASRs at that site. Water from the WAF will percolate into the earth and evaporate into the air — just as the water in the lake does — and can also be used to ensure supply to existing permitted water users.

“Historically, the area for the shallow reservoir would have functioned as part of the lake’s littoral zone,” Gysan explained. “We’re not trying to store water over the majority of that site during the dry season.”

USACOE Senior Hydrogeologist June Mirecki oversaw the limited geotechnical study on the area. She said the area planned for the WAF is former lake bed. “The surficial sediments are permeable sands,” she explained. “As you get deeper and further west, the sand becomes thinner and you get more marine sediments.”

She said the state-owned areas of the site are “spotty” with a parcel here and a parcel there, so while they could not survey the entire site, they did get a good variety of samples.

The WAF was intended as dynamic storage and as a source for the ASRs, she continued. “It’s not like a standard reservoir that can be accessed whenever you need it.”

Gysan said the corps has conducted some cultural surveys on the state-owned land in the WAF footprint to determine if there are any areas such as Native American burial mounds that must be considered. He said they adjusted the footprint to avoid some cultural resource sites. Once the project has federal authorization, they will conduct a full review.

Before the Herbert Hoover Dike was built, in very wet years the footprint of Lake Okeechobee swelled and flooded about 30% more area than the lake’s current footprint. Part of that occasionally flooded area was privately-owned land. When the HHD was built, the corps diked the area that was in public ownership.

Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR)
The third aspect of LOWRP — a plan for 80 ASR wells — is already under way. In 2019, the Florida Legislature allocated $50 million to the SFWMD to “fast-track” storage north of Lake Okeechobee identified in LOWRP. SFWMD is the leader on that effort, said Gysan, but the corps will review the plans. The state and federal partners worked together on developing the implementation plan.

ASR wells have a relatively small footprint and can be built on property the state already owns adjacent to waterways,

An existing ASR on the east bank of the Kissimmee River was operated for a five-year test from 2009 to 2014. That site has four monitor wells, explained Mirecki. “We have data from there already. They are using the existing data and it will be part of a future groundwater monitoring system, building on what we know.”

The original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), approved by Congress in 2000, included 333 ASR wells to provide water storage, said Gysan. After the detailed five-year regional modeling effort, the number of wells was reduced.

There is still a possibility more ASR wells will be included in other CERP projects. “It depends on a lot of other project implementation factors,” said Mirecki. In some of the proposed ASR sites, no hydrological data has been gathered.

“Eighty is the maximum we think we can do in the LOWRP footprint,” she explained. “That doesn’t eliminate the need for that additional storage.”

Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs has asked LOWRP be expanded further north to include the watershed all the way to Orlando, where the Kissimmee River starts. Could ASRs provide more storage in the northern watershed?

“One of the things about permitting ASRs is you have to document no impact to existing users of the Floridian Aquifer,” said Mirecki. “The Floridian Aquifer becomes much shallower as you move north. ASR doesn’t work as well in the Upper Floridian Aquifer,” she said. In addition, as you move north, there are more existing water users.

At their August meeting, the SWFMD governing board started the LOWRP ASR project by approving funds for exploratory coring and construction of monitoring wells. At that meeting, SFWMD Director of Ecosystem Restoration and Capital Projects Jennifer Reynolds said ASR wells are considered for use in the Upper Floridan Aquifer or the Middle Floridian Aquifer. To reach those aquifers, the cores will drill down to 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep. She added these are not deep injection wells (DIW). DIWs go into the Boulder Zone, which is about 3,000 feet deep. Core borings will provide site-specific geologic and hydrogeologic data to evaluate properties of the Floridan Aquifer system at locations under consideration for ASR wells.

To learn more about LOWRP, go online to www.saj.usace.army.mil/LOWRP.

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