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Lake Okeechobee Reservoir Gets Approval From Federal Budget Officials

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency for seven counties around Lake Okeechobee, including Martin County where algae blooms can be found along the St. Lucie River including Shepard Park, shown here.

A plan to build a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee was approved by federal budget officials on Tuesday, as part of an effort to reduce blue-green algae blooms on Florida's coasts.

The roughly $1.6 billion dollar reservoir project will now pass from the White House Office of Management and Budget to the U.S. Senate, where it's expected to be funded as part of a water resources bill.

Scientists and state and federal water managers say the reservoir would help lessen future algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee waterways and on Florida's east and west coasts. The blooms this year are so massive that on Monday, Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency in seven counties.

Read more: How A $10 Million Competition Based In South Florida Takes Aim At Algae Blooms Worldwide

The blue-green algae erupts when bacteria from aging septic tanks and manure mixes with water released from Lake Okeechobee. The lake water has high levels of nutrients such as phosphorus, which combine with the bacteria to worsen the algae blooms.

But the water discharges are often unavoidable, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the water releases. After heavy summer rains, high water in Lake Okeechobee increases pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is currently being repaired.

Scientists and water managers say having more storage south of the lake would lessen the need for the discharges east and west.

The algae crisis and what happens with the reservoir has become an issue in the 2018 Senate race between current U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and his main opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

"The EAA reservoir project that we have been fighting for has been approved by the White House & will be transmitted to Congress. This critical project will help us move & store more water south of Lake Okeechobee," Scott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. 

Also on Twitter, Nelson posted he's asked federal health officials to study the impacts of algae blooms.

"People should know how toxic algae can impact their health," the Tweet said. "Rick Scott is not providing adequate information to folks in effected [sic] areas, so I've asked the CDC to step in to help inform the public and study the effects of prolonged exposure to this algae."

Everglades advocates, meanwhile, say they're just happy progress is finally being made on a signficant restoration project. The original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a state-federal partnership, was initiated in 2000. Of its 60-plus original projects, only a handful -- one, two or three, depending on who you ask -- are complete.

"After 18 years of unnecessary delay, Florida is finally poised to move forward with the solution that scientists and policymakers alike have long known is indispensable," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, in a statement.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart resident who's been championing the reservoir since algae blooms devastated tourism and fishing in his community in 2016, urged federal officials to continue the momentum.

"I look forward to securing the federal funds to match Florida's approved budget for this project," he said in  a statement. "There is no reason we cannot begin the initial permitting and engineering for the reservoir within the next few months. This is an emergency; time is of the essence."