TALLAHASSEE – “We cannot forget the urgency that we felt last session in addressing the toxic algae blooms. Warm temperatures and heavy rains will put us right back in that situation,” said Senator Rob Bradley.
The Senate Appropriations Committee heard Jan. 18 from South Florida Water Management Executive Director Ernie Marks, who assured the committee that all of the alternatives presented by SFWMD for an reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) meet the requirements of SB 10, which was passed in May 2017.
Sen. Bradley, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, sponsored Senate Bill 10 in the 2017 Florida legislative session.
“The legislature’s charge to SFWMD was to balance these concerns and deliver a project that reduced the harmful discharges, met water quality standards and sent additional water south to the Everglades and to Florida Bay,” he said. Mr. Marks said all of the proposed alternatives accomplish those goals.
“I like to start by keeping the end in mind,” Mr. Marks said.
“Those goals were clearly set for us by Senate Bill 10,” he said. “Those goals and objectives were paired with the restoration goals in CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan), so we knew where we wanted our endpoint to be.
“Southern storage, while a critical component we are trying to achieve, is one of many components. This is a large puzzle piece, but it’s an even larger puzzle that we continue to work on. We have currently underway planning north of the lake for storage, both above ground and below ground. We have components of IRL South (Indian River Lagoon) that need to be constructed. We have C-44 (reservoir), which the district is currently constructing the STAs (stormwater treatment areas) and pump station for, and C-43 (reservoir) which is also being constructed on the Caloosahatchee River,” he explained.
“CERP identified an 80 percent reduction in harmful discharges to the estuaries,” Mr. Marks continued. “It was recognized in CERP that we wouldn’t be able to store our way out of the issues, that there would be times when there would have to be releases to the coast because there wouldn’t be any other options.
“It was also identified in CERP we were looking for approximately 300,000 acre feet (of water) to the greater Everglades on an annual average basis,” he said.
“When we identify a storage feature, we have to make sure we have adequate treatment and conveyance to ensure that feature will work as dynamic storage,” he said.
He said the reservoir project in SB 10 will be done through a modification to a federal action. The reservoir will be part of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which was approved by Congress last year.
“It’s also important to know, when we talk about a modification to CEPP, CEPP has other components to it. There are components outside of storage and treatment. There are conveyance features to the south that allow treated water to move through the system to the northern end of Everglades National Park. “Those features are critical for any southern storage plan to work. Otherwise if you have a year like we had this past year, if you don’t have the conveyance to the south, you would have been able to fill a reservoir once, and not been able to drain the reservoir. We want to continue to have dynamic storage. We want to bring water in. We want to treat it. We want to move it south and make room for more water to come in,” he said.
The projects in CEPP create the increased flow for the water to move from the lake to the reservoir, and then to stormwater treatement areas, and on to the water conservation areas. CEPP also includes projects to provide increased flow the water conservation areas to Everglades National Park. Without CEPP, the reservoir would be static storage.
“We have to remain consistent with seeking federal approval and cost share,” Mr. Marks added.
“There have been a lot of questions about treatment, and modeling and reservoir sizing,” Mr. Marks said.
“We started with the goals clearly stated in SB 10 and CERP,” he said. Those goals included making sure that any reservoir alternative had adequate treatment to send treated stormwater to the Everglades.
“In order to meet the time frames we were under, we reached out to landowners and in the meantime we started work on the (state owned) lands that were specifically identified in the bill,” Mr. Marks said. He added that most private landowners in the EAA do not want to sell. The few who are willing to sell own small parcels in areas that are not in the right location to be useful for the SFWMD projects.
“That leads to the size of the reservoir,” he said. “Not only is it feasible, it will be economically feasible.
“It is costly, but is something that can be done, and in fact it is what we are doing on the C-43 reservoir right now,” he said, explaining that the embankments being built for C-43 reservoir are the same height as those proposed for the EAA reservoir.”
Mr. Marks said all of the modeling done by the SFWMD will be independently verified by a peer review panel. The two alternatives recommended as “best buys” give the taxpayer the most benefit for the dollar, he said.
All of the alternatives reduced discharges to the northern estuaries, increased the flow to the Everglades and all of them meet water quality standards, he said.
This project will not meet the CERP goal of 80 percent reduction of discharges to the northern estuaries, he said.
“Southern storage and authorized projects don’t get you there all by themselves,” he said. “But that’s when you look at other projects such as the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project.”
The authorized projects plus the reservoir can achieve 93 percent of the goal for increased flows to the Everglades, he explained.
“I think we can get to 100 percent by optimizing the projects,” he added.
Several senators asked if the proposed alternatives will meet water quality standards. Mr. Marks assured them that the water quality standards will be met.
The senators also asked about the timeline and concerns that the project could be delayed.
He said the timeline in SB 10 calls for the report to go to the assistant secretary of the Army by March 30. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will then have 90 days to review the plan.
Mr. Marks said some environmentalists have suggested the project footprint should be bigger. He said the proposed projects use land already in state ownership. Attempts to acquire more land would delay the project, he said.
He said in regard to state land that has been leased, notifications have already been sent to leaseholders that SFWMD is terminating the leases in accordance with the terms of the leases.
“Some have suggested we should model something bigger with the hopes of getting that land. That would put us back into a federal planning process,” he said.
“It (the timeline in SB 10) was aggressive for a reason; because we wanted to see action and I think we are seeing action. So thank you for honoring the legislative intent and doing what was asked of you,” said Sen. Bradley,
“The third-party independent reviews we heard about today, that should give citizens some assurance that the district is doing its job because people who don’t work in the district are reviewing its work.
“Some suggest we should not proceed with this project and should instead push for a larger reservoir that would require significantly more land and money which means more time in addition to more land and money.
“There isn’t a CERP project that has been studied more than the EAA Reservoir. It is foolish to wait for something that might happen decades from now in the meantime allowing damage to our estuaries and coastal communities when we have a project today that will make a significant difference,” he said. “Make no mistake about it. The state has done its part and now the federal government needs to do theirs.”
Senate President Joe Negron was present but did not comment during the hearing, which was broadcast live online. After the meeting, he reportedly told reporters that he still wants to see a bigger footprint for the project, with an additional 4,000 to 5,000 acres, according to an article by Bruce Ritchie of Politicopro.com.