The Army Corps is taking public comment on a scaled back plan to fix pollution in and around Lake O
The Army Corps unveiled a scaled-back plan Tuesday to address decades of pollution flowing into Lake Okeechobee and fouling northern estuaries. It dramatically cuts back on both the storage and cleaning needed to fix the lake.
Known as the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Protection Plan, the project originally called for nearly 12,000 acres of pollution-scrubbing marshes, a reservoir that could hold a quarter-million acre feet of water every year and 3,500 acres of restored wetlands. The plan, included in the 2000 blueprint for Everglades restoration, aimed to both store and clean water polluted by ranches, farms and growing neighborhoods north of the lake.
The plan now relies on dozens of deep underground wells to store water and avoid polluted discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers that can help fuel toxic algae blooms. Just under 6,000 acres of wetlands will be restored.
“I mean, the bulk of the project's not there anymore,” said Paul Gray, a biologist and Everglades Science Coordinator for Audubon Florida. “Fifty-nine hundred acres of wetlands is fabulous, but that’s not on a scale that’s going to help Lake Okeechobee.”
Just last week, the Environmental Integrity Project reported that Florida ranked first in the U.S. for the total acreage of lakes too polluted for healthy aquatic life or swimming, with nearly 900,000 acres of impaired lakes. Lake O covers about 450,000 acres.
In the Tuesday meeting for public comment, Corps officials said the focus shifted two years ago after concerns were raised over the cost of about 4,300 acres in man-made wetlands that funnel water into nearby underground storage and recovery wells. The land is split among various owners, making it difficult to acquire. The large reservoir also faced objections.
With 55 underground wells, Corps planner Zulamet Vega-Liriano said the project should store 308,000 acre feet of water every year.
“ASR technology offers the potential to store and supply large volumes of water beneath our relatively small surface footprint,” she said.
But the wells can be controversial and drew scrutiny after the 2000 Everglades plan called for an unprecedented number of just over 330 wells. A Corps study found such a large number could interfere with water use, so suggested cutting back to just over 100 wells. The study found that water stored south of the lake would likely be contaminated by the brackish aquifer but water north of the lake should not be affected.
As part of the current plan, Vega-Liriano said an ongoing study would track operations.
“The plan will be updated annually, showing the progress made to address uncertainties with ASR wells and will document feedback from the peer review panel,” she said.
The Corps hopes to get the plan approved in time for this year’s Water Resources Development Act to secure $150 million in federal dollars which would match state spending. Congress intended to fund Everglades projects every two years through the national infrastructure bills.
But Gray worries keeping the work on track may wind up sacrificing key pieces of a lake clean-up effort that has been bogged down for decades. The storage amount also falls short of what is needed. A 2015 University of Florida Water Institute report commissioned by the Florida Senate called for dramatically increasing storage and cleaning north of the lake.
“When they wrote that document about how to reduce flows to the estuaries, one of the comments is we don't really know what we're doing north of the lake,” Gray said. “The water management district had this goal of 900,000 acre feet, but they don't have a roadmap to get there.”
A 2000 plan was derailed, Gray said, after the Army Corps said it was not responsible for cleaning water.
At 2.6 million acres, Gray said the Lake Okeechobee watershed needs a full-blown plan on par with the 3 million acres that make up the Everglades.
“It's not that they did too much down south, they just didn't quite realize the magnitude of the problems that the lake has,” he said. “The agencies are all stressed out about all the money they have to spend on [Everglades restoration]. So you ask them: ‘We got another problem just as big. What do you do about that?’ And they're kind of like, 'yeah.'”
The lake plan is now open for public comment through April 4. More information about the project and how to submit comments can be found here.