Water managers planning a massive Everglades reservoir to help end polluted releases from Lake Okeechobee that regularly foul both coasts unveiled early drafts of the project Tuesday.
While still far from final, the plans call for piggybacking the reservoir on an existing water treatment area that helps clean up the dirty water. By law, the South Florida Water Management District must stick to a strict timeline, which district officials dubbed the “beehive,” forcing engineers to squeeze work that normally takes more than a year into six weeks.
The pace and complexity of the plan also have engineers struggling to design a project that meets multiple objectives on a limited footprint.
Earlier this year, lawmakers laid out the reservoir in a new law championed by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to deal with rising complaints from residents. The law requires district engineers to design a reservoir capable of storing at least 240,000 acre-feet of water on land the state already owns. Water managers also hope to dramatically increase water heading south — where marshes have dried out and more than 40 square miles of Florida Bay seagrasses have died — as part of ongoing Everglades restoration efforts.
Because the size is limited, the reservoir will likely need to be deep, increasing the need for treatment to meet water quality standards. And that’s raised questions over how engineers will meet the challenge.
Polluted water is now treated in shallow basins south of the lake where underwater plants can grow and help scrub phosphorus, which is carried from farms and urban run-off into marshes that can tolerate very little. In recent years, the existing basin has successfully helped deliver cleaner water, a major success in drawn-out restoration work. Environmentalists now worry deepening that reservoir could hamper clean-up.
And if water is too dirty to be moved south, South Florida could wind up with “a Lake O mini me,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
Environmentalists also worry that district officials aren’t looking hard enough to find more available land to expand the size of the project.
“The deeper it is, the ecological benefits are gone,” said Diana Umpierre of the Sierra Club. “All of that is good reason for them to really make a bigger effort to increase the footprint.”
On Tuesday, district officials presented four scenarios: two plans providing the 240,000 acre-feet of storage and two allowing 360,000 acre-feet. Each scenario includes treatment areas to scrub phosphorus from water, but models have yet to determine exactly how they’ll work. Engineers had hoped to present those models Tuesday but now expect to present them Dec. 13, said lead engineer Walter Wilcox.
In addition to addressing clean-up, officials also plan on preparing a cost-benefit analysis to justify the work to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which splits the bill for restoration work with the state.
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