TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Nov. 4, 2013 – A Senate committee will be asked Tuesday to support $190 million for projects intended to help reduce pollution going into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries from Lake Okeechobee.
A 23-page draft report, which is slated to go before the Select Committee on Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, adds six long-term fixes to a list of short-term fixes first recommended in August by Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
“This draft report represents a significant first step toward improving water management across the entire South Florida region,” Negron wrote in a letter to committee members that accompanied the report.
The report supports giving some authority to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over water releases from Lake Okeechobee; proposes increasing funding for the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs that link the lake with the estuaries; and backs the $90 million that Gov. Rick Scott has sought to bridge a 2.6 mile section of the Tamiami Trail.
The Tamiami Trail bridge money would be spread out over three years and come from the budget of the state Department of Transportation.
The recommendations follow a list of short-term proposals released in August. At the time, residents on both the east and west coast of Florida were fighting U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Among the short-term proposals: cleaning water that comes into the lake from the Kissimmee River; reducing nutrients from septic tanks; and raising the allowed water levels in canals by a few inches.
Some corrective measures have already been taken. In September, the committee approved $2.77 million to improve pump stations, in order to reduce the flow of polluted water that negatively affected the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
That money will also go to a build a channel across the Tamiami Trail barrier to hasten the flow of water from the Florida Everglades in Miami-Dade County. Groups such as the Everglades Foundation have called the Tamiami Trail “one of the most prominent dams” blocking the natural flow of the River of Grass from the lake to the southern Everglades.
The committee’s latest recommendations drew praise from Judy Sanchez, the director of corporate communications for U.S. Sugar Corp., as offering a “thorough and timely analysis.”
The report also outlines the history of efforts since 1882 to control and redirect South Florida’s inland waters and repeats the state’s criticism of the management of the Herbert Hoover Dike System by the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District.
John Campbell, public-affairs specialist for the Army Corps Jacksonville Division, said in an email Friday that it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on a draft the agency had received earlier in the day. However, he added that the Army Corps remains committed to completing repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee. The work includes replacing or removing 32 water control structures around the lake.
“These structures or ‘culverts’ are currently seen as the greatest risk for dike failure due to the loss of material into and around them,” Campbell noted. “Additionally, while we do this work, we are identifying and evaluating the remaining features needed to reduce risk on the remainder of the dike, to ensure we appropriately prioritize our rehabilitation efforts. We will continue to execute our responsibilities as directed by the President and authorized by Congress.”
In all, the report includes about $190 million in short-term and long-term projects, including the Tamiami Trail work. Among the recommendations:
• $40 million to speed construction of the state’s portion of a C-44 reservoir and stormwater treatment area for the Indian River Lagoon-South Restoration Project.
• $5 million to support construction of the C-43 basin project to provide water storage in the Caloosahatchee basin. The committee also asked to add the reservoir – of which Florida’s eventual share is estimated at $289 million – into the state’s Long-Range Financial Outlook.
• $32 million to ensure that all surface water discharges into the Everglades Protection Area meet water quality standards.
• Giving DEP authority to regulate releases when the risk of dike failure is less than 10 percent.
“The committee concludes that the Corps has not adequately considered the widespread damage done to the estuaries when it releases large amounts of water from Lake Okeechobee,” the report states.
The Army Corps tries to maintain the water level of the lake between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to lessen stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike. The Army Corps estimates that when the lake is slightly above 18.5 feet, the risk of failure is considered 45 percent.
The report notes that when the water level is toward the lower end, the Army Corps generally defers on water release decisions to the South Florida Water Management District.
Source: News Service of Florida, Jim Turner