Florida’s $2 billion Lake Okeechobee reservoir plan won’t clean water enough, Everglades expert says

By: - August 16, 2019 4:57 pm
algae bloom

A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, where Lake Okeechobee water is discharged. Credit: John Moran

A multi-billion-dollar government plan to build a reservoir to curb South Florida’s noxious algae outbreaks sparked by manure, fertilizer and sewage pollution is drawing renewed opposition, with a top wetlands expert concluding that it’s not big enough, it’s designed wrong and could end up fouling the Everglades.

Two environmental groups say it’s time – with a new governor and a new water management panel – to go back to the drawing board and design it right.

The state Legislature passed the Lake Okeechobee reservoir plan in 2017 to great fanfare.

The original concept would have created a large basin covering 60,000 acres south of the lake, coupled with  wetlands to filter water. The idea was to divert Lake Okeechobee’s polluted water there to get filtered instead of being discharged – as it is now – east through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic and west through the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf.

Those discharges have fueled serious toxic algae outbreaks that make people and animals sick, cover beaches with dead marine life, and generate negative media attention around the world.

But in the end, the plan shrunk down considerably, to just 17,000 acres of state-owned land. And that’s a problem, ecologically speaking, says an updated study by William J. Mitsch, an eminent scholar at Florida Gulf Coast University who has worked on wetlands research all over the world.

It will take far more than that – about 100,000 acres – to make the water clean enough, Mitsch concluded in his scientific modeling.

Rather than spending $2 billion on a reservoir, he says in the science journal Ecological Engineering, the state should try harder to re-open talks with agricultural corporations in the Everglades Agricultural Area to buy more land and revise public leases that corporations hold to grow crops on public lands.

“Providing treatment wetlands to achieve water quality goals in the Florida Everglades is closer to true ‘restoration;’ creation of large, difficult-to-manage deep reservoirs is not,” Mitsch writes in his journal article.

Lake Okeechobee, filled with runoff containing sewage, manure, and fertilizer,  bakes in the Florida heat and grows noxious algae. Without careful ecological planning, the reservoir could end up with the same problems.

Pollution from sugar-growing operations used to be a large contributor to the lake’s problems, because the government let growers pump water from the lake, use it to irrigate their fields, and then pump it back into the lake, filled with fertilizer and chemicals. Environmental groups sued and won, stopping the practice.

In the years since, though, Lake Okeechobee’s pollution levels have grown, thanks mostly to intensive cattle and nursery operations, sewage-sludge spreading and vegetable farms that operate east, west, and north of the lake. Urban runoff from Central Florida is also a contributor.

Two environmental groups, the Friends of the Everglades and the Sierra Club, say it’s an ideal time for the state to re-visit the multi-billion-dollar project, since Florida’s new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is promising to make the environment a priority and there’s a new board at the South Florida Water Management District – the government entity that oversees the project.

Sierra Club’s Diana Umpierre calls the reservoir’s current design “a staggering betrayal” of what Everglades advocates thought the project would entail.

“It makes no sense to spend $2 billion on a reservoir with a questionable design that is highly unlikely to provide the desperately needed benefits,” she said in a written statement. “Too many people have rushed to promote the implementation of the current design.  Claiming victory, accepting less than what we truly need, will not ensure the restoration of the Everglades. We need to continue to demand the land needed to make restoration a reality.”

One hitch in getting more land is that the law that the Legislature passed to create the Lake Okeechobee reservoir specifically prohibits the state from using eminent domain to get land for the project, says Friends of the Everglades executive director Alex Gillen. Sugar companies in the area have refused to sell.

Mitsch isn’t the first scientist to raise concerns that the reservoir design won’t properly clean water. The federal Army Corps of Engineers raised the concern back in 2018, Gillen said in a written statement.

The current plan “forces more water to be stacked up in a smaller footprint, driving up costs and limiting options,” Gillen said.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.