Everglades reservoir underway, but there's new concerns over whether it will work
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on the first stage of a sprawling reservoir — nearly as big as Manhattan — being built on farm fields in western Palm Beach County. It's expected to take at least eight years to complete.
The reservoir, along with treatment marshes already under construction by the South Florida Water Management District, are intended to help repair ailing Everglades wetlands and reduce polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee fouling coastal estuaries.
The DeSantis administration has embraced the reservoir and marshes as the ‘crown jewel’ of its Everglades work, a sentiment echoed repeatedly at Wednesday’s groundbreaking as politicians, dignitaries and career-long River of Grass advocates gathered at the dusty site to celebrate next to piles of granite sand and rock trucked from Georgia that loomed over speakers.
“This one is real special. This was the one that was at the center of everybody's mind,” district governing board member Scott Wagner told the crowd. “You could not go anywhere or meet with anyone inside the district, outside the district, in our communities, who did not mention the reservoir and its importance.”
But the reservoir continues to face major hurdles, chiefly the state’s ability to provide clean water.
In its most recent congressionally-mandated progress report, the National Academies of Sciences warned that Florida is in real danger of not meeting a court-ordered 2025 deadline for cleaning water in existing treatment marshes. And without meeting the thresholds for clean water, the Army Corps won’t allow water from the reservoir to be used to help collapsing marshes.
The Corps would also limit water entering the reservoir. That could shrink the amount of water provided by the reservoir to less than half what was expected from the nearly $4 billion project.
“The state’s efforts to remediate the quality of Everglades inflows is foundational to [restoration] implementation,’ the team of scientists wrote. But meeting the requirement, they said, remains a “significant challenge.”
The stormwater treatment marshes are the result of a 1992 settlement to end a landmark case over dirty water polluting wetlands with farm and basin run-off. Altogether, the state constructed about 57,000 acres of treatment marshes and other features in a complex system that tries to absorb and scrub phosphorus. The phosphorus from farm and basin run-off can turbo charge cattails that choke marshes and block water flowing south. In 2010, the court gave the state 15 years to meet water quality guidelines.
So far, only one set of treatment marshes south of the lake is on target to meet the deadline. The other marshes, to the west and the east, “far exceed” the limits, the scientists said.
District officials have downplayed the concerns.
“We know the members of the National Academies. This is not the first time we've heard these doubts,” executive director Drew Bartlett said Wednesday. “We know we need to meet those water quality goals. And so that's what we're focused on. We got a couple of years to get there, and we're doing a lot of work in the [treatment marshes] right now.”
The reservoir and treatment marshes were added to a larger, more complex suite of projects authorized by Congress in 2016 to jumpstart sluggish progress on the comprehensive plan, which was authorized in 2000. The group, called the Central Everglades Planning Project, corralled smaller projects to reconnect the central water flow from Lake Okeechobee in a modern-day engineered river of grass.
Under the plan, the reservoir was intended to do double duty. During the wet season, it would store water to help reduce polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee regularly sliming estuaries with toxic algae blooms. That water could then be used during the dry season to keep marshes from drying out and Florida Bay from growing too salty.
Former Florida Senate President, Joe Negron, whose Treasure Coast district was getting slammed by blooms and who attended Wednesday’s groundbreaking, wrangled the project through the state legislature. But he could not overcome some obstacles. The powerful sugar industry argued it would put them out of business and lawmakers would only allow land already owned by the state to be used. That left the footprint far smaller, raising concerns over whether reduced treatment marshes would be enough to clean water.
At the time, the Everglades Foundation - now one the project’s loudest cheerleaders - worried that the marshes would fail to deliver clean water. Even the Army Corps gave it a skeptical review.
Some groups remain concerned. Friends of the Everglades, the nonprofit founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, intentionally skipped Wednesday’s groundbreaking. Sierra Club, which repeatedly objected and asked for required reports to be made public, said it was not invited.
“You can’t just wait for the water quality deadline to get here and find out that the reservoir isn’t functioning as it was sold to the public,” said Friends’ executive director Eve Samples. “I’m sure you’ve heard the line, ‘Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.’ But that involves the assumption that what’s proposed is good.”
While the district expects to complete the treatment marshes by the end of the year, the Corps has broken the reservoir into five projects. At about 23-feet deep capable of storing 240,000-acre feet of water, the reservoir will need to be surrounded by a towering protective berm rising 37 feet high.
The project will also require a massive plan to keep water from leaking out.
Corps officials say the project will become the largest reservoir ever constructed as part of restoration.