Some thorny issues and financial hurdles remain to be worked out, but, in a heartening move, a plan to clean up and redirect Lake Okeechobee spillover southward into the Everglades got a real boost this month from the South Florida Water Management District.
The board approved the ambitious, complex project on Aug. 15, giving supporters hope that it can meet a crucial deadline to present the joint state-federal plan to Congress this year for funding.
The $1.8 billion Central Everglades proposal has the water management district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers splitting the costs. Expensive? Yes. But also necessary if two vital estuaries — the St. Lucie River on the East Coast and the Caloosahatchee River on the West Coast — are to be saved, and parched portions of the Everglades are ever to be slaked.
The summer rains have come in record amounts this season. That means the Corps must release water from the lake to keep it from flooding during hurricanes and from breaching the rickety Herbert Hoover Dike.
But rather than send the water south in a historic flow into the Everglades, the Corps must divert the water east and west into the two river systems. Why? Because the lake’s water is so badly polluted by runoff from agriculture and urban sprawl.
This torrent of dirty water kills shellfish beds and sea grass nurseries off both coasts. This year, it has dirtied the St. Lucie to the point that residents are warned to stay out of the water, period. The Central Everglades plan would make such intrusions less likely. The plan would also clean up the phosphorous-laden water before sending it southward.
It’s a good plan that should be put to work as soon as realistically possible. But first, some kinks must be worked out, along with the assurance of adequate funding.
The water management district worries that it might violate federal clean-water standards if the lake flow isn’t adequately cleansed and wants federal assurance that it will cooperate with the state rather than punish it if that happens. But, in turn, the district must make every effort to ensure that the water can be cleaned up well enough to justify sending it into the Glades.
The district also wants — rightly — guarantees that the feds will keep their part of the fund-matching bargain. The state has already spent $2 billion on Everglades restoration and another $880 million on the Everglades water-cleanup plan. While the state was spending all that money in the 2000s, federal support stalled. Commendably, President Obama reopened the money pipeline in his first term.
To be fair, the federal government lately has spent a lot of money on another part of the Everglades system — repairing the creaky Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding during hurricanes. The dike was built after two storms in the 1920s sent water surging out of the lake, killing thousands of people. This year the Corps finished a $220-million overhaul of the dike’s weakest section, but much more work is needed. The dike is still one of the agency’s most vulnerable levees. Shoring it up remains a Corps priority.
The Everglades is a unique ecosystem badly damaged and infringed upon by generations of Floridians, and the Corps, too.
So using public money to repair as much man-made damage as possible to restore the Everglades is in all our interests. The water management district and federal authorities must do everything possible to make the Central Everglades plan a reality this year.