Local,  State

Full Funding for New Stormwater Treatment Area

The South Florida Water Management District now has full funding for the construction of a new stormwater treatment area (STA).

On Nov. 12, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board unanimously approved the transfer of $64 million in funding from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the STA.

As part of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project, the STA will clean water from the EAA reservoir and send it south to the Everglades and the Florida Bay. With an optimal depth of 1 foot, 6 inches to 2 feet, the 6,500-acre manufactured marsh is expected to send 120.6 billion gallons of water south each year.

The first phase of STA construction, which included clearing, grubbing, and muck removal, was completed in September and the second phase of inflow and outflow canal construction was scheduled to be completed this month. Bidding for the final phase of construction of the STA treatment cells and control structures will open in January 2021.

Construction of the EAA reservoir will be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is expected to finish by 2028. It will be 10,100 acres with 37-foot walls holding 240,000 acre-feet of water.

Jason Schultz, a communications representative for the SFWMD, told the Florida Political Review that the SFWMD is encouraging the Army Corps “to begin construction ASAP.”

The Army Corps was criticized by some Florida lawmakers and Friends of the Everglades for designating the reservoir a “new start” project, an action which delays federal funding for construction of the reservoir until October 2021 unless Congress takes special action to provide funding sooner. In a joint statement earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, argued that this could potentially stall the project’s completion. The Army Corps already has funding for the design of the project.

The STA is expected to be available for use before the completion of the reservoir.

The EAA Reservoir Project was conditionally approved in the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Progress on the EAA was accelerated by the passage of Florida Senate Bill 10 in 2017. In 2018 the SFWMD’s plan was approved and federal authorization was received.

The full project including both the reservoir and the STA will cost $1.6 billion.

Schultz told the Florida Political Review that the EAA project is projected to create around 1,400 jobs.

Once completed and in combination with future and existing projects, the EAA Reservoir Project is expected to reduce the need for Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Between Oct. 14 and Nov. 12, Lake Okeechobee discharged 15 billion gallons of water to the St. Lucie River and 60 billion gallons of water to the Caloosahatchee River.

As the Florida Political Review has previously reported, Lake Okeechobee discharges may contribute to the environmental degradation of Florida’s estuaries, such as St. Lucie Estuary. Another concern is the impact of Lake Okeechobee discharges on blue-green algae blooms, such as those experienced in 2016 and 2018.

“Improved operation of Lake Okeechobee after the construction of the EAA reservoir could help mitigate the effects of algae blooms in the lake and estuaries, but it will not prevent them,” said Dr. Wendy Graham, director of the University of Florida Water Institute, to the Florida Political Review.

Quinn Zacharias, an undergraduate researcher in phosphorous management, echoed Graham. As he told the Florida Political Review, “It will help with algal blooms prospectively; I don’t think it will make them go away.”

“This problem is all over the world,” Zacharias said. “We dumped too much fertilizers and nutrients into our waterways and it wreaks havoc everywhere across the world.”

Schultz said that residents, environmental groups, and the charter fishing and tourism industries have all voiced support for the EAA Reservoir Project.

However, the environmental groups Friends of the Everglades, the Florida chapters of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity criticized the project in February arguing that the STA has not been proven effective at water quality treatment and that the reservoir could have blue-green algae blooms similar to those that occur in Lake Okeechobee.

They cited the work of William J. Mitsch.

Mitsch, director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Everglades Wetland Research Park, argued that the EAA Reservoir Project needed to be redesigned and could even potentially pollute the Everglades themselves.

The Center for Biological Diversity told the Florida Political Review this month that although they do not have a specific position on the project, they still share the concerns expressed in the joint February letter.

Sierra Club Florida remains opposed to the project.

In their February criticism, the three environmental groups also echoed concerns raised by the Miccosukee Tribe in 2018 over the use of some tribal land as a mixing zone to treat water and over the Army Corp’s lack of an independent alternative analysis of the project without what they referred to as SFWMD’s “land footprint constraints.”

In 2019, the Miccosukee Tribe expressed concerns over increased water drainage onto tribal lands as well as phosphorous increases.

The Florida Farm Bureau has also expressed concerns about the project in the past.

The group opposed an original version of Florida Senate Bill 10 in 2017 that expedited progress on the EAA Reservoir Project over concerns with property rights and taking additional agricultural land out of production, but they told the Florida Political Review that they now support the EAA Reservoir Project and STA.

The EAA Reservoir Project STA is expected to be completed in 2023.

Featured image: Sunset over the Caloosahatchee River in Florida. Unedited image by Russ used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/39d1u5n)

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