From the headwaters of the Everglades south to Florida Bay, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency on restoring the Everglades. It’s a project 15 years old with a rising price tag. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project was approved in 2000 with an estimated cost of $8.2 billion. Halfway through, its 30-year time line and the cost have doubled according to the latest update from the Corps to Congress. That’s significantly different than a navigation project, such as dredging a port, where the Corps looks to create more economic value by its spending to change the environment.
Col. Jason Kirk oversees the Corps’ Everglades restoration work. He took command of the Jacksonville District amid a drought in July 2015. Just five months later, record rainfall forced the Corps to increase discharges from Lake Okeechobee, sending billions of gallons of dirty water to Florida’s east and west coasts. In the meantime, environmental groups such as the Everglades Foundation worry that last summer’s seagrass die-off in Florida Bay is growing due to the lack of fresh water at the bottom of the Everglades.
WLRN’s Sunshine Economy spoke with Kirk about the Corps’ Everglades work and responsibilities. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Describe the Corps’ Everglades responsibility.
A: The Army Corps of Engineers, specific to the Everglades, has been engaged for many years. In 2000, the federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, entered into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project. Everglades restoration remains a federal priority. It is the highest-percentage-supported aquatic ecosystem restoration project in our nation.
Q: When you say the highest-supported, do you mean the highest financially supported?
A: That’s right. In President [Barack] Obama’s 2016-2017 budget request, about 30 percent of the nation’s aquatic ecosystem restoration goes toward the Everglades. That’s higher than any other project.
Q: What is the Corps’ highest priority when it comes to its responsibilities regarding the Everglades?
A: Regarding the Everglades, [it is] aquatic ecosystem restoration. The principal efforts back in the 1948 Central and South Florida Project were fundamentally about flood risk management. That was the No. 1 driver of the 1948 effort. Now, with the 2000 and beyond effort, the primary effort is restoration. It’s important to note that there’s also the imperative to maintain the water supply commitments and
maintain the flood risk management benefits of the system while restoring the system. When we talk about this restoration, we say we’re trying to get the water right. Getting the water right is about quality, quantity, timing and distribution. How much of it? How clean is it? When does it move? And where does it move? Those are all the elements that are being attended to in this restoration effort.
Q: How does the Corps balance all the stakeholders in this effort? Public safety and the Hoover Dike [around the waters of Lake Okeechobee]? Recreation and fishing? Environmental aspects? Real estate protection with flood control? And of course the agriculture industry?
A: It starts with the fundamental premise that this is a restoration effort. We’re looking at the benefits gained in our flexibility with water distribution, improvements to water quality. And that’s in multiple directions. Right now, the system does not allow us to move as much water south as we envision in the ultimate plan. So we move water in great quantities both east and west when it’s burdening Lake Okeechobee. We do not have as many options.
Q: The Hoover Dike is undergoing a rehabilitation program. Is the dike safer today in advance of another wet season than it was a year ago?
A: Every element of construction helps, but because we still have gaps, the short answer is no, we’re not much safer today than we were a year ago. But every element does help get us towards that. We have worked on and are almost complete with a dam safety modification study. It will help give the answers to what specific things need to be done along the perimeter of the dike again. We’re looking at an additional investment of about $700 million dollars. This is on top of the $700 million that’s already been extended. It will allow us then to operate the lake with less risk.
Q: Would it allow the Corps, which is responsible for setting the lake level, to set a lake level that is higher than it is set at today?
A: Completing the study and the work directed in the study will allow us to evaluate the lake [level] schedule. We will revisit the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule that was drafted in a very public process in 2008.
Q: So it’s possible it could hold more water than it does today?
A: It is possible that it could hold more water, but that is not necessarily going to be the outcome.
Q: As you’ve mentioned, it’s very difficult to move that water south when there is an historic rainfall such as in December and January. The fastest way to reduce the lake level is to the east and the west, and we’ve seen the environmental damage those fast releases have done in those watershed areas. The issue is the ability to store water. Storing water also allows the potential of cleaning the water. What’s the feasibility of an aquifer storage program instead of reservoirs?
A: We spend a lot of time studying that. This was a prominent feature in the original study in the 2000 effort. It certainly won’t solve the storage effort by itself. We think that it’s about two-thirds [less] capacity of what was originally envisioned. We need other options.
Q: Those other options are going to be reservoirs. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is not in the business of buying land for reservoirs, is it?
A: The state of Florida has the responsibility to acquire the lands that then become part of the Everglades restoration.
Q: The five-year report card on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project acknowledged that the costs continue rising. In 2000, the total cost of the plan was just over $8 billion. Now it’s about twice that. What is that return on investment for South Florida?
A: What are the benefits? The improved health of Lake Okeechobee. The water in Lake Okeechobee and the water going out of Lake Okeechobee will have less of a nutrient load. Therefore the freshwater releases to the estuaries will be decreased and the water that goes out will be cleaner. The water to Florida and Biscayne bays will be cleaner. The increased water that will get to Florida and Biscayne bays has a value in helping address sea level rise. Part of the manifestation of sea level rise is the salt water intrusion can creep further in subsurface and surface water.
The policy that guides us in an ecosystem restoration project is a little bit different compared to a navigation project such as dredging Port Everglades. The aquatic ecosystem restoration benefits only need to equal the cost as we amortize the economic benefits.
Col. Jason A. Kirk
Job title: Commander & District Engineer, Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Experience: Deputy Commander, Operations Group, U.S. Army National Training Center; Commander & District Engineer, Charleston District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Executive Officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division; Operations Officer, 40th Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division; Project Engineer, New Orleans District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Education: Master of engineering, University of Florida; master of science, University of Missouri-Rolla; bachelor of science (environmental engineering), U.S. Military Academy; Army War College; Army Command & General Staff College.