$1.4 billion Everglades reservoir clears key hurdle. Is it enough to save the Glades?

Once completed, the reservoir should send more water down Shark River Slough and into the southern Everglades.
Once completed, the reservoir should send more water down Shark River Slough and into the southern Everglades. Miami Herald file photo

South Florida water managers signed off on a $1.4 billion reservoir Thursday, approving one of the costliest projects yet in the decades-long effort to stop coastal pollution and send clean water to the Everglades’ ailing marshes.

The decision also created a rare moment of unity for the Republican-controlled state, farmers and environmentalists usually at odds over fixing the River of Grass.

“We’ve come a long way in just two short years after national news covered an emergency here in Florida,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg told the governing board at the South Florida Water Management District, referring to a 2016 algae bloom that triggered a state of emergency along the Treasure Coast. “We didn’t quiver and run to the corner. We stood up and figured out a way to solve it.”

lovett st. lucie algae
In 2016, water from Lake Okeechobee with high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen helped trigger algae blooms that choked the Treasure Coast and prompted Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency. Greg Lovett Palm Beach Post

The project now heads to Washington for Congressional approval and another hurdle: federal funding to cover half the cost.

While the state’s major environmental players have rallied around the plan, the yearlong effort was often tense, and still has doubters. The Sierra Club and Bullsugar, a Stuart nonprofit started by residents and fishing guides, remain concerned that cutting the amount of dirty discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts may be overstated. They also fear reducing the pollution to the coastal estuaries of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers could come at the expense of Florida Bay.

And until this month, the Everglades Foundation argued that the project would fail to deliver clean water and needed to double the size of the proposed artificial marshes that will treat water going into the reservoir. In a February report, the foundation also said the project might jeopardize the success of an existing network of treatment marshes by adding more water than they were designed to clean.

This week, Eikenberg said those concerns were eased when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the district’s pollution permit, issued an order spelling out the need to meet strict standards for phosphorus, the fertilizer nutrient that kills marshes, or add more treatment.

But Thursday, Sierra Club organizer Diana Umpierre said the district had still failed a critical mission: rather than present the best plan needed, it backed into a reservoir hobbled by lawmakers who restricted its size to state-owned land.

“As a result, we do not know if your tentatively selected plan represents the actual optimal configurations or [the] best buy,” she told the board. “The District has failed to show the public what else is possible and therefore we cannot judge what is on the table.”

cape sable
In addition to cutting pollution from dirty lake water discharged to coasts to the north, the reservoir is intended to deliver clean water south to Florida Bay, where a 2015 and 2016 seagrass die-off spread across more than 60 square miles. Miami Herald file photo

The massive reservoir was originally planned as a final piece of the state’s restoration plan approved in 2000 to reconnect Lake Okeechobee with South Florida’s marshes and Florida Bay. But the 2016 Treasure Coast bloom and deteriorating conditions in the bay — in 2015 a seagrass die-off started that eventually covered more than 60 square miles — drew widespread public support for a faster solution. The Trump administration’s opposition to environmental causes, from denying climate change to shrinking environmental agencies and clashing with scientists, also raised concern.

State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, made the reservoir a priority during his final year as senate president and initially pitched a 60,000-acre project — big and shallow enough to both store and treat water.

But that ambitious proposal fell apart under pressure from the state’s powerful sugar industry, still smarting from a failed 2008 effort by Eikenberg’s former boss, former governor and current U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who wanted to fix the Everglades by buying about 187,000 acres owned by U.S. Sugar. During the bitter legislative fight, farmers repeatedly complained the reservoir was an attempt to put them out of business, although on Thursday they commended the “science-based plan” that they say complies with the law and allows farmers “to continue to supply homegrown, fresh food for millions of Americans.”

The reservoir approved Thursday calls for a 23-foot deep, 10,500-acre reservoir and a 6,500-acre treatment marsh. District planners have said it will work by piggy-backing onto other projects.

tamiami trail bridge
A one-mile bridge over the Tamiami Trail was completed in 2013 to allow more water to flow into Everglades National Park. Another two-mile bridge is now under construction. Miami Herald file photo

They were less emphatic in a February report, since removed from the district web site, that raised questions about levels of phosphorus in some parts of the system. While the district scientists felt confident water entering conservation areas could largely be cleaned, they were less certain about water in Shark River Slough. Shark River runs through Everglades National Park and into the Gulf and marshes around Florida Bay, so water flowing must meet strict criteria hammered out in a landmark lawsuit with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report found that the ways they predict how the system will work once huge volumes of water begin flowing south are too limited. They also lacked historical data. They concluded the project “presents some risk of future non-compliance.”

On Thursday, district planner Matt Morrison said any problems could be addressed through managing the system and getting other work completed. About $1.6 billion approved under a 2016 suite of projects intended to speed up work is ongoing, although not all of it is funded.

“Everything we’ve done continues to improve our ability to utilize the existing infrastructure and we’re confident we’ll meet all the water quality requirements,” he said.

st. lucie algae
The reservoir is expected to reduce, but not end, polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts that helped trigger algae blooms in the St. Lucie River in 2016. Richard Graulich Palm Beach Post

Even with Thursday’s approval, the project is still years from completion. Morrison said the entire project would likely take eight years to design and construct. A 2018 waterworks bill only authorizes work. It still needs to be included in a budget, he said. Design work could be done in advance, but funding would need to be in place by 2020 or 2021, he said.

Slow as that may seem, in Everglades time, that’s breakneck speed. It also leaves time to make fixes.

“This process has been a whirlwind,” Cara Capp, Everglades program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the board. “I had a lot of questions along the way and I still have questions....We can’t say for sure that what we see in the model we’re going to see on the ground in eight years. But if we need to make changes we will.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich