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Public weighs in on reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee

June 29, 2018
By JESSICA SALMOND (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

The public has until July 24 to put in their comments about the expanded storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

After Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 10 and activists lobbied in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to fast-track the review of a new reservoir area in the Everglades Agricultural Area just south of the lake, proposed by the South Florida Water Management District.

The Corps is undertaking the review of an environmental impact statement of the new area and must take public comment as part of the process.

Article Photos

JESSICA SALMOND
City of Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans speaks at the public meeting on the new EAA reservoir expansion on June 26 in Lehigh Acres.

The comment period is open from June 8 to July 24; the Corps and SFWMD also held public meetings on June 26-28 in Lehigh Acres, Clewiston and Stuart for the public to make comments on the draft environmental report.

"We do support the project. We appreciate all your work, and the expedited timeline. Fabulous," Rae Ann Wessel, director of natural policy for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said.

Wessel was one of those who trekked to D.C. to ask for this new piece of the puzzle.

Fact Box

Acronym guideline

- A-1 and A-2: Two parcels of land adjacent to each other owned by the state between the Miami Canal and New North River Canal

- CERP: Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, a program with many projects included in it that will restore the Everglades

- CEPP: Central Everglades Planning Project, a group of projects within the CERP, focused mostly south of Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades

- EAA: Everglades Agricultural Area, an area of land south of Lake Okeechobee that the state is leasing land for agriculture; the lease is up in 2019

- SFWMD: South Florida Water Management District, the state governmental agency that manages water resources in the southern half of the state

- WRDA: Water Resources Development Acts, several pieces of federal legislation funding water resources and water quality projects throughout the nation; the most recent, passed in 2016, includes funding for the Herbert Hoover dike at Lake Okeechobee; the next WRDA is up for authorization in the fall

One storage area, called A-1, is already approved in the EAA. It was approved as part of the Central Everglades Planning Project. The CEPP was authorized in the 2016 Water Resources Development Act, which is federal legislation that authorizes projects for funding. Part of another area, A-2, was also approved.

But to add in the new storage area into the A-2 parcel, and its stormwater treatment area, the CEPP has to be amended through WRDA.

The reservoir project as a whole will cost $1.301 billion, in a state-federal cost share.

WRDA is up for reauthorization in the fall, so the Corps has to hustle to get the report on A-2 finished in time.

"This is a very aggressive schedule. This is not the norm," Gina Ralph, the environmental lead for the Corps, said.

A-1 has the capacity for 60,000 acre-feet of storage. Because of SB-10, which called for a deep storage area in A-2, the expanded A-2 will be about to hold 240,000 acre-feet, with a depth of 23 feet. It also has an accompanying stormwater treatment area of 6,500 acres.

According to the meeting presentation, the additional storage area could reduce releases to the Caloosahatchee by 40 percent.

That fact gave Cape Coral resident Jessica Blanks some concern. She spoke during public comment to ask that the leaders of the project also do an evaluation of baseline flows of freshwater to the Caloosahatchee.

The river and the estuary may be inundated with freshwater now, but the system still needs some freshwater input, so Blanks wanted to make sure releases from Lake Okeechobee would not be shrunk too much and the estuary's salinity levels get too high.

"I hope they don't take too much water away," she said.

As long as the river does not succumb to the saltwater, Blanks is supportive of the additional storage. She has a background in marine science and public health and has been focusing in on the water quality issues in her area.

"I live on the water. I'm trying to do my part," she said.

Sanibel City Councilwoman Holly Smith and Natural Resources Director James Evans also attended the June 26 meeting in Lehigh Acres in support of the added storage. Evans offered up the city's help to facilitate the fast-track project.

"This project will reduce the damaging flows. That's a significant reduction," he said. "Between the blue-green algae and dark water, they have had a tremendous effect on our local economy."

Evans is keeping an eye not only on the added storage, but the other projects as well - with a water system that is interconnected, it is important to be engaged in projects in other parts of the system, he said.

Leslie Waugh, the SFWMD project manager, said the added storage will also provide another benefit: increased water flow into the Everglades.

Just south of the EAA are other components of the CEPP. There are water conservation areas, and other projects at play to help send water south. Water is cleaned in the EAA and then sent into the conservation areas to be slowly conveyed south, mimicking historical although more human-managed "sheet flow" from the lake down to the Everglades, and ultimately out to Florida Bay.

SFWMD is working on projects that will facilitate that flow while also protecting the nearby urban areas from seepage.

"We're working on this area now to bring more water to the system," she said.

While the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers have suffered the consequences of too much water, Florida Bay at the tip of the state has had the opposite issue: it has been getting too little into its important estuary system, which provides a large habitat for fish nurseries and seagrasses.

Another project facilitated by the SFWMD that is working to be online is the C-43 reservoir, another water storage area specifically for the Caloosahatchee River. The reservoir will be built to hold freshwater that can be used during dry season, when the Caloosahatchee still needs some freshwater flow to its estuaries and maintain the desired salinity levels. The project has been authorized and funded, and is in the construction contract phase. Its anticipated completion date is December 2023.

If the additions are authorized into the CEPP, it will still be years before the reservoir is built and functioning, said John Campbell, spokesman for the Corps.

"WRDA authorizes. Appropriations is separate," he said. "It still has to be funded, as well."

Once the comment period wraps up, the Corps will have to finalize the report by September to be included in the 2018 WRDA reauthorization.

Comments can be be made to eaareservoir@usace.army.mil or by mail to Stacie Auvenshine, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 4970, Jacksonville, FL 32232. Comments will not be answered directly, but will be answered in the final report to be compiled in August and submitted in September.

A full draft of the environmental review can be found online at saj.usace.army.mil/SFWDEAAReservoir.

 
 

 

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