Environment

Massive South Florida reservoir back in spotlight at conference

A white pelican stands in Snake Bight in Florida Bay. Last year, seagrass that provides habitat for shellfish and young fish began dying. The die-off eventually covered over 25 square miles in the bay. Scientists say a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee could provide the freshwater to stop such die-offs.
A white pelican stands in Snake Bight in Florida Bay. Last year, seagrass that provides habitat for shellfish and young fish began dying. The die-off eventually covered over 25 square miles in the bay. Scientists say a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee could provide the freshwater to stop such die-offs. Miami Herald staff

A massive South Florida reservoir that is key to fixing the Everglades’ faulty plumbing, and has divided water managers and environmentalists, will once again take center stage at an annual meeting on restoration next weekend.

Drawing conservationists, politicians and scientists from across the state and Washington, the Fort Myers conference, titled “Three Estuaries, One Solution,” comes about midway through restoration efforts, with the work well behind schedule — less than 18 percent of the $16 billion effort has been funded, according to the National Academies of Sciences’ most recent update.

While not a new issue, the contentious stand-off on the reservoir has grown testier this year, with incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron vowing to push for purchasing 60,000 acres of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee in the upcoming legislative session. No leadership from the South Florida Water Management District would take part in the conference, organizers said. And earlier this month, a resolution by Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava to support the reservoir dissolved in a dispute over jobs, even though sugar farming is now largely mechanized.

“There was a time years ago when the water management district actually sponsored the conference with a large financial contribution,” said National Parks Conservation Association Everglades program manager and conference chair Cara Capp. “So different times.”

Over the last year, district officials have also fought aggressively in press releases, editorials and an info graphic to instead direct efforts away from sugar land, north of the lake.

They are spending a lot of time on public relations and trying to make the case that this is not an urgent need, but we know from virtually every scientist and our senate president how urgent it is.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava

“They are spending a lot of time on public relations and trying to make the case that this is not an urgent need, but we know from virtually every scientist and our senate president how urgent it is,” Levine Cava said. “We can’t afford to put that part of Everglades restoration on a shelf.”

In his letter to commissioners, district executive director Pete Antonacci called the focus on the reservoir “myopic,” saying it does “little to contribute to restoration success.” Antonacci did not respond to a request for comment. But district spokesman Randy Smith said the governing board simply wants to stick to a schedule laid out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that slates work for 2021, even though the Corps said in July it was willing to move up planning.

Smith said the board has not taken a position on the proposal by Negron, who over the summer met with environmentalists and farmers before concluding that the reservoir was the best fix for stopping dirty lake discharges and moving fresh water to Florida Bay. Over the last year, releases from the lake fouled both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, leaving the Treasure Coast coated with toxic algae for months. At least 25 miles of seagrass began dying in the bay in 2015.

It is well-recognized that more storage is needed system-wide, however, the myopic focus on land acquisition south of Lake Okeechobee does little to contribute to restoration success.

South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonacci

Antonacci has said buying the land now would postpone other work. But environmentalists say Amendment 1, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2014, has provided more than enough money.

District officials have also said storing water north makes more sense because it keeps pollution from entering the lake, where phosphorus remains high from years of fertilizer run-off. In the info graphic, they say a University of Floridas study called for a million acre-feet of water storage north and south of the lake, “with three-quarters of that storage or up to 750,000 acre-feet needed north of the lake.”

132,000 to 507,000The amount of storage in acre feet University of Florida scientists say is needed south of Lake Okeechobee

But the graphic failed to include UF’s recommendation for more storage south — up to 507,000 acre feet — because routing water from the north takes too long and would not “be as effective as southern storage in meeting timing and distribution objectives.”

The sugar industry and local farmers have also pitched the reservoir as an attack on a way of life. Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor created the Glades Lives Matter nonprofit in July with a Facebook page that echoes many of the sugar industry's complaints.

While restoration has frequently been contentious, environmentalists worry that the district’s strategy ignores science.

Not having more storage south, according to the NAS report, threatens to derail ecological progress on the handful of projects under way. With design changes and revised rules on water levels in Lake Okeechobee since the original restoration plan was created, about a million acre-feet of storage have been lost that now need to be accounted for, the report said.

“The past year almost perfectly exemplifies the problem, where you have one problem going on in the estuaries to the north and south suffering from excess water and the harmful effects from that, and at the exact same time you’re seeing the opposite problem at the south end where seagrass is dying off,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy. “In the natural Everglades that didn’t happen.”

The Negron proposal seemed to bridge the divide, she said.

“We left that meeting and he said, I’ll announce a plan that makes the most sense in eight weeks, and two days later he held a press conference,” she said. “Lo and behold what he took away from all those people was, hey, guess what? We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to do what was in the plan in the first place.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

  Comments