But that progress hasn’t stopped the perpetual debate over restoration plans. Adding to the confusion in this year’s debate, the water management district and environmentalists actually agree on the need for a reservoir south of the lake.
“The District has clearly stated (as is well documented in the CERP) that we need storage north and south of Lake Okeechobee — as well as East and West,” district scientist Paul Warner said in an email.
But when it gets done and how big it is has the two sides at fierce odds. A bill backed by Negron, a Stuart Republican, would require the district to buy $1.2 billion in land from willing sellers or exercise a land purchase option negotiated by former Gov. Charlie Crist in an ambitious plan that initially called for buying 180,000 acres — all the fields owned by the U.S. Sugar Corp. In 2010, the district bought 26,800 acres, but in 2015 rejected a purchase option for 46,800 acres. An option to buy the remaining land expires in 2020.
U.S. Sugar and other politically influential growers are pushing hard to derail the Negron plan. And the district says the state needs to stick to a plan hammered out this year that starts reservoir work in 2021 — with the location and size yet to be decided. The existing schedule also focuses efforts north of the lake, away from land owned by powerful sugar companies. District governing board members have also argued that storage to the north allows them to better control the flow of water into the lake, which fills up six times faster than it can be emptied.
This week, the district also drew attention to an old solution long on the books but now coming up for planning under the schedule: deep wells that dump water in the Floridan aquifer north of Lake Okeechobee. The wells, called ASRs for Aquifer Storage and Recover, were originally conceived as a vast network that would provide the bulk of storage for restoration, with more than 300 ringing the lake and in clusters near the Caloosahatchee basin and along the eastern edge of water conservation areas. After an 11-year study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that drilling so many would likely create problems with pressure inside the wells and cut the recommended number to 131.
Scientists also say the chemistry can change in stored water, posing a risk to plants and animals. In 2015, the NAS recommended more research on those effects before using the technology.
Environmentalists, and residents of the Treasure Coast who repeatedly endure foul water when the lake is flushed, say the reservoir should be started now. Otherwise, all the other projects won’t have the water needed to revive the historic system that stretches all the way south into Florida Bay — where more than 25-square miles of seagrass died after a 2015 drought.
“Of course, you don’t want to build the reservoir before you have all this conveyance, but it has to be in the queue so that when other elements come on line, you’re poised to flip the switch and start getting immediate benefits,” said Davis of the Everglades Foundation.
Supporters also worry that if that option to buy sugar land struck by Crist expires, the state will never be able to buy the huge expanse it needs. The proposed bill calls for the district to negotiate with willing landowners. If none are found, then the district must exercise its option on the sugar land.
Although U.S. Sugar once agreed to sell its land, it now fiercely opposes it, spinning the move as a land grab by big government, environmentalists intent on wiping out Big Sugar and rich Treasure Coast residents indifferent to the fate of small farmers.
But much of the land Negron originally targeted is owned by corporate farms, not small farmers. And many sugar jobs were replaced years ago by mechanized farming and more efficient mills. Negron has wants to pay for the reservoir with money from 2014’s Amendment 1, which is supposed to be reserved for purchasing environmental land. Lawmakers are currently being sued by environmental group for spending much of the $700 million collected last year on state salaries, risk management insurance and other administrative issues.
“There’s no single project that will put an end to the discharges,” Davis said. “There’s no silver bullet. But when have a suite of projects, you should be looking at those that provide the greatest overall benefits. . When you add the benefits to Florida and Biscayne Bay and water supply to 6 million people on the east coast, it’s a slam dunk.”
Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com