Posted: 3:54 p.m. Thursday, October 11, 2018
By Kimberly Miller – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A reservoir to hold Lake Okeechobee overflow and spare northern estuaries from harmful discharges won approval in the U.S. Senate this week with the passage of a sweeping water act.
It was the final step for the legislation, known as America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, before heading to President Trump’s desk for signature. The U.S. House approved the bill last month.
The $1.4 billion project slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County is a partial answer to activists’ calls to “send the water south” and could alleviate the blue-green algae blooms plaguing the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
When Lake Okeechobee gets too full, jeopardizing the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, water is released east and west into the estuaries. That fresh water damages the brackish ecosystems and encourages algae growth by diluting salinity levels.
“We are making history for America’s Everglades,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy at Audubon Florida. “It’s record timing to get a project spearheaded, planned and then authorized by Congress in a little bit over a year.”
The reservoir was pushed by retiring Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017. It followed the devastating algae outbreak of 2016 when thick foul-smelling mats of cyanobacteria covered the St. Lucie River during a period that included the Fourth of July holiday — a heavy tourist time for the Treasure Coast.
Another algae outbreak plagued Lake Okeechobee and both rivers this summer after record May rains flooded the system with nutrients that fed the cyanobacteria during the long summer days.
“I grew up in Martin County, and I’ve watched the degradation of our waterways and it’s heartbreaking,” said former Sewall’s Point Mayor Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, who spoke at Thursday’s South Florida Water Management District.
The reservoir plan calls for a 10,500-acre above-ground storage area and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment pond. Depending on how the money is distributed for the project — the state and federal government are expected to split the cost — the reservoir could take about 10 years to build. The state will seek money from the 2020 federal budget.
Lake Okeechobee stood at 14.22 feet above sea level Thursday, within the Army Corps of Engineer’s comfort level of between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. It’s also nearly 3 feet lower than it was at this time last year after Hurricane Irma’s torrential rains drove it to 17.16 feet above sea level.
The Corps stopped discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary this month and reduced discharges to the Caloosahatchee.
Terrie Bates, director of water resources for the water district, said there has been an “immediate response” in the estuaries with saltwater moving farther upstream to increase salinity levels.
“We still have a long way to go in recovery because of the duration of the discharges, but the first step is to get the salinity levels back up,” she said.
If the reservoir project didn’t get approval this year, it would have to wait two more years until the water act is scheduled to come up again.
“Against all odds and really tough schedules, we were able to get this done,” De Palma said. “It was quite the race.”