A massive Everglades reservoir intended to stop dirty water in Lake Okeechobee from polluting the coasts and revive South Florida's wilting marshes may have hit a stumbling block: a skeptical federal response.
In an 86-page review, the Assistant Secretary of the Army's Office of Civil Works faulted South Florida water managers this month for designing a project that most likely fails to meet water quality standards or fully considers costly dam safety. The detailed critique also made clear the state's restoration partners want a lot more information before agreeing to pick up half the tab on a $1.4 to $1.8 billion project they worry could move dirty water from one end of the Everglades to another.
The South Florida Water Managed District swiftly fired back, accusing the feds of "laying the foundation for delay and avoidance," in a letter signed by the governing board chairman and executive director.
"These are the folks we’ve been working with for 20 years and if they can’t understand why getting additional water to the Everglades is beneficial, I don’t know where to start," executive director Ernie Marks said Tuesday. "Quite frankly, if I was somebody out there counting on something to happen, I’d be very concerned by what I read in that report."
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Marks and the Corps' Jacksonville commander Col. Jason Kirk, who attended a joint state and federal meeting intended, ironically enough, to highlight restoration progress Tuesday in West Palm Beach, both blamed part of the problem on a tight timeline imposed by the state that prevented the Corps from helping with the planning.
"It was all a first go, so the federal government did as much as it was allowed and communicated through the process here's what we can look at, here’s what we cannot," he said. "They have to do most of the work and they were using a tool...that allowed them at the pace they needed to go, a pace driven by the state law."
Initially proposed by former Florida Senate President Joe Negron in 2016 as a massive 60,000-acre shallow reservoir similar to one included in the 2000 comprehensive Everglades plan, the project was bitterly opposed by sugar growers who refused to sell any land to expand the size. Lawmakers forbid the district from taking any land by eminent domain. They also set the strict timeline to bring relief to Treasure Coast residents in Negron's home district where the summer rainy season regularly fills up Lake Okeechobee and triggers polluted releases that foul the estuary with toxic algae blooms.
Hemmed in by the deadline, the district proposed a speedy planning process that had never been tried. That left planners on their own to navigate layers of bureaucracy and complicated hydrology modeling.
During a fast-tracked series of public meetings, environmentalists and scientists repeatedly raised questions over the size of water treatment marshes, worried that lawmakers' promises to sugar growers doomed the project. They also worried that the dam costs for a 23-foot-deep reservoir would be too steep.
Many of those questions came up again in the Corps' civil works review. The agency warned that meeting water quality standards "remains uncertain" and that a high risk exists "that the project as planned and designed would not comply." A model used to look at how much marsh-killing phosphorus could be cleaned by the plan's 6,500-acre treatment area failed to provide enough proof to justify sharing the tab, especially if it ended up shifting polluted water south. The Corps also said its leaders previously prohibited it from sharing the bill for water projects connected to the lake.
Had the Corps done more in the planning, Marks said some problems probably could have been avoided.
"Multiple times we sent letters trying to engage them," Marks said. "We even offered to pay them."
But while the Corps' critique may look like it could doom the project, restoration veterans say it's not a surprising response from an agency that generally works on a more meticulous, slower schedule.
"We've never not been able to work out these issues," said Shannon Estenoz, who steered restoration efforts at the Department of Interior for eight years before becoming chief operating officer at the Everglades Foundation in April. "We've been here before. We have a project that everyone knows is a great project and everyone is behind. That's the most important thing."