OKEECHOBEE — Work on the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and stormwater treatment area (STA) could be delayed, not by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but due to opposition from a native tribe.
In an Oct. 23 letter to Lt. Gen. Semonite of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rep. Brian Mast and Sen. Marco Rubio accused the corps of “bureaucratic delays” stalling progress on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and storm water treatment area (STA). In the letter, Rep. Mast and Sen. Rubio asked for the matter to be addressed at the Oct. 29 South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meeting in Washington D.C.
Col. Andrew Kelly and some corps staff members were at the task force meeting on Oct. 29, with an update of the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which includes the EAA reservoir project.
Rep. Mast was also at the Oct. 29 meeting, but when given the opportunity to speak, he did not mention the timeline for the EAA reservoir. He praised the corps for working with the state agencies to move CERP projects ahead. Then he launched into a commentary promoting lower levels for Lake Okeechobee. Rep. Mast promotes lowering the lake level to 10.5 feet by the start of the rainy season to ensure there is capacity in the lake to hold enough water in the wet season to prevent the need for discharges to the coastal estuaries.
At that same meeting, a representative of the Miccosukee Tribe again expressed the tribe’s opposition to the EAA reservoir project.
Truman “Gene” Duncan, water resources director for the Miccosukee Tribe, said the tribe objected to Florida Senate Bill 10 (which authorized the reservoir) and objects to the EAA reservoir plan.
“We believe it is in the wrong place. We need more storage but north of the lake. Second, it is 23 feet deep. That entire footprint was supposed to be three or four feet. You get water quality treatment from vegetation when you have shallow reservoirs. You get no water quality treatment in 23-feet-deep reservoirs. No plants can grow their roots that far,” he said.
Mr. Duncan said the corps analysis indicates 43% more water will come down into the conservation area. Even treated, that water will bring with it a 36% increase in phosphorus going onto tribal lands in Conservation Area 3, he said. “We have all been fighting phosphorus for decades, trying to stop the phosphorus, but the EAA reservoir results in more phosphorus on tribal lands. This is a big issue.
“Another issue is tribal graveyards,” he continued. “There are gravesites right in the middle of the footprint and they will be buried under 23 feet of water. That is a big cultural violation for the tribe.”
He said with some of the smaller STAs, the corps or SFWMD were able to make accommodations by going around a burial ground or making containments to keep the burial grounds dry. “There will not be any way to do that under 23 feet of water,” he said.
Mr. Duncan said the analysis of predicted water levels, based on the past 41 years of data, shows another concern. “There will be more water distributed over here into Shark River Slough, but at the expense of Conservation Area 3A. We won’t be able to get the airboats out of the canal,” he explained. “You cannot visit your islands. You cannot go to your homes. You cannot grow corn for your ceremonies. You cannot practice your religion.”
“They say there will be more water coming in — in eight to 10 years, so I think I’m supposed to tell my chairman, ‘Don’t worry about going to visit your land for eight to 10 years.’ We have a serious concern with how the system is going to be operated. This comes about because we built these big bridges to pass the water into Shark River Slough, but have not supplied the water that will come down to supply that water yet. They took Conservation Area 3B out of the program, so the water instead of flowing from 3A to 3B and following the natural flow, it flows down south to the Tamiami Trail where the S-12 gates are closed to prevent this — to protect the sparrow — makes a 90-degree turn to the east, makes another 90-degree turn to go to the Shark River Slough. There is nothing natural about what we are doing to the Everglades today.”
Mr. Duncan also addressed the question of proposed changes to the lake schedule.
“When it is 15.5 feet to 12.5 feet, we are in the Goldilocks zone, best for the ecology, the fish, the aquatic life. It keeps the STAs hydrated,” said Mr. Duncan. “When you are down to 12.5 to 10 feet, you are in the water shortage band. When you are below that, down at a 10.5 or 9.5, we have severe water restrictions, risk of damage, water shortage restrictions, wildlife deaths, permanent soil loss, fires, saltwater intrusion if we go further.
“That lake is the liquid heart of the entire South Florida,” he said. “We cannot manage Lake Okeechobee for one group of people — it has to be a balanced approach … Instead of just asking to keep the lake at an artificially low level, we have to look at all of the factors.”
The permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, usually takes an average of three and a half years. For the federal permits for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and STA project, the corps started an expedited process last year with the goal of completing all of the requirements in just 19 months. If there are no delays, the permits will be complete in May 2020.
However, one of the NEPA requirements involves addressing concerns for impact on tribal lands, and Mr. Duncan has been vocal about the Miccosukees’ concerns, which have not been addressed.
In a media conference call on Nov. 1, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they are having “government to government” discussions with the Miccosukee Tribe. “We will take all of their concerns into consideration,” he explained. “We have to listen to and address all of the concerns,” he said. “I don’t anticipate any show stoppers.”
Col. Kelly said the corps is on track to complete the permits by May 2020. In regard to the accusations in the letter from Rep. Mast and Sen. Rubio, Col. Kelly said when Florida Senate Bill 10, which changed the timeline for the EAA reservoir, was passed in 2017, the corps immediately responded to all of the elected officials involved and explained the various steps required for a corps project and the time line required to complete the studies and reports, including the NEPA requirements. “We are not delaying,” he said. “The overall project is not delayed. We are expediting this.”
On average, NEPA, which involves specified public comment periods by each federal agency impacted by a project, and addressing those comments, takes about three and half years. The corps is on track to expedite the process and complete it in 19 months.