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Army Corps reviews storage project for north of Lake Okeechobee

August 2, 2018
Lehigh Acres Citizen

Restoring the Everglades is a multifaceted, multi-project undertaking.

Even though the Everglades is south of Lake Okeechobee, part of the restoration effort is occurring north of the lake, too.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking public comment on a project north of Lake Okeechobee: the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project.

This project is a part of the overall Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

The Corps held a public meeting in Lehigh Acres Tuesday to explain the project and get feedback. The project is in its draft report now; a final report will be submitted to Congress to get authorization to do the project, and then it will have to be funded through a future Water Resources Development Act. Reaching the funding stage of this project is probably about two years away, said Corps spokesman John Campbell. It's a 50/50 cost share between the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District, but the Corps is taking the main lead on this project.

The Lake Okeechobee project hones in on the water coming into the lake from the Kissimmee River. Estimated at $1.4 billion, it will establish a wetland attenuation feature, two restored and managed wetland areas, and 80 aquifer storage and recovery wells.

"This is above and below ground storage, plus treatment," said Lisa Aley, the Corps Planning Lead. "It gives us more flexibility to not make some releases to the estuaries."

The wetland attenuation feature works as a shallow reservoir, holding 1.5 to 3 feet of water depth. It's planned at about 12,500 acres. It would be build north of the lake and to the west of the Kissimmee River.

"It will mostly look like a wetland," Aley said.

The Corps will be able to divert the Kissimmee River through the two planned wetland restoration areas, which will help clean the water and slow its arrival into Lake Okeechobee.

Aley gave a history lesson on why this storage north is needed. In 1947, a series of bad floods prompted the government to start managing the state's rivers and lakes to prevent homes and businesses from being flooded out year after year - draining southwest Florida, she said.

It caused the environmental issues the state faces today, but also allowed more development on dry land which was historically wet. The Kissimmee River also used to have a more winding, meandering path, which slowed the water's arrival to the lake.

"We've lost a lot of natural storage north of the lake," she said.

So, then there's the 80 wells. They will be clustered together in areas mostly north of the lake, with the exception of one cluster near the C-43 Canal and another near the C-44 Canal.

Bob Verrastro, a hydrogeologist with SFWMD, said these wells will go down about 1,000 feet and span about 300 feet in width. Their surface footprint is relatively small.

Water can be pulled from the canals and the attenuation feature into these wells to store and reduce the amount going into Lake Okeechobee.

The water has to be treated before it enters the well, through both a filter and an ultraviolet blast to kill bacteria, Verrastro said.

While in the well, the phosphates that may be in the water get reduced because the well will be made of limestone, which reacts and bonds with the phosphorous, he said.

"Limestone has an affinity for phosphorous," Verrastro said.

The water must meet drinking water quality standards when it gets in the well; then, when more water is needed, it's pumped back out and cleaned again.

The Corps already has two pilot wells in operation to test the project. So far, one has retained 90 percent of the water put in it.

The remaining 10 percent could be mixing with the groundwater flowing beneath the well, but Verrastro said the wells won't lose much: the groundwater moves, on average, 0.01 feet per day.

"After a year, you'd maybe lose a foot (of water)," he said.

The Corps believes these well systems will be a more efficient way of storing water to the north, as it doesn't require tens of thousands of horizontal acres.

The entire scope of the wetlands, attenuation feature, and wells will increase storage, cleaning mechanisms and wildlife habitat north of the lake according to the Corps' study.

The Corps held a similar meeting several weeks ago to collect input about a project south of Lake Okeechobee; however, recent water quality concerns brought a higher number of attendees to Tuesday's meeting.

Many of those in attendance expressed concern about the red tide in the Gulf of Mexico and cyanobacteria in the Caloosahatachee.

"We are dealing with a very major disaster in our area. This all goes back to storing water and sending it south," said Kay Haering, a meeting attendee, during public comment. "We don't want to see contaminated water sent down our Caloosahatachee. We may not have a choice in taking water, but we don't want the contaminants with it."

Karl Deigert is a hotel owner, tour captain, and president of the Matlacha Civic Association in Matlacha. He said during public comment that he hasn't gotten a phone call for business in weeks.

This week, he noticed for the first time small clusters of cyanobacteria in the canal behind his business.

He said he's honest with people who want to book boat tours right now - and he won't take them anywhere the water is questionable.

"Businesses will fail. Employees will go," he said. "We're already thinking about selling."

He said he was concerned about the 10 percent of water lost into the Florida aquifer in the wells proposed by the Corps.

"It's seeping to somewhere - into our drinking aquifers," Deigert said.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds outlined some of the actions the Corps is taking now to work on the water quality issues, but warned a long-term fix wasn't happening soon.

"From the Corps perspective, a significant portion of the long-term answer is the Everglades restoration. Storage and conveyance south," she said. "There are a lot of projects, they're going to take a long time. We know we can't wait."

She said the Corps was working with SFWMD to identify "all available storage," including finding out how much more water the lake can safely hold outside the 12.5-15.5 feet preferred range and how much water can be put into canals, cleaned, and sent south into the Everglades.

"And it's still not enough," Reynolds said. "And, we know that."

More information and maps of the Lake Okeechobee project are available at saj.usace.army.mil/LOWRP.

Public comment on the Lake Okeechobee project ends Aug. 20.

To submit a question or comment about the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project to be included in the official report, email OkeechobeeWatershedRestoration@usace.army.mil

 
 

 

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