A short-term benefit package will flow toward South Florida following approval Thursday of the plan to improve the health of waterways harmed by releases from Lake Okeechobee.
The $2.77 million allocation approved by the Legislative Budget Commission is to improve pump stations, reducing the flow of polluted waters that have negatively affected the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. The money will also go to a build a channel to aid the flow of water from the Florida Everglades across the barrier of the Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who chairs the commission comprised of lawmakers from the House and Senate, said the projects will allow the communities east and west of the lake “to mitigate the damage to the lagoons and estuaries.”
The projects are “all designed to store water on mostly public lands to have additional pumping so that the water goes south,” Negron continued. “And there is a small amount of money to cut a little area in the Tamiami Trail so more water can go south.”
Audubon Florida Legislative Director Mary Jean Yon backed the allocation, noting the organization has requested such water management programs throughout the Northern Everglades watershed.
"If there is a surprise it's that they were able to get things going this quickly," Yon said.
The money, to come from the Water Management Lands Trust Fund, was among a number of short-term fixes by Negron’s Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin that held an afternoon-long workshop in Stuart on Aug. 22.
Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said the relief effort is needed to protect property owners, businesses and tourism.
"It's going to be a tremendous boost I think for what we're doing in trying to correct the last 150 years of some of the things we've done in Florida," added Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
As a long-term fix, Gov. Rick Scott recently proposed $90 million to lift a 2.6 mile section of the Tamiami Trail to further improve the southern flow of water through the Everglades.
The bridge would break up part of a 10-mile stretch of the road, which since 1928 has been a buffer to the natural flow of water between Lake Okeechobee and the southern Everglades.
Money for the bridge project would be spread over three years and would come from the state Department of Transportation. It is expected to match money from the U.S. Department of Interior, keeping construction on pace to be completed by 2017.
Negron’s select committee focused on short-term fixes: cleaning the water that comes into the lake from the Kissimmee River; reducing nutrients from septic tanks; raising the allowed water levels in canals by a few inches; and getting Scott to declare a state of emergency for the lake to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate the lake protection plan.
Martin County commissioners approved a resolution on Tuesday requesting the state of emergency declaration. St. Lucie commissioners are expected to do the same next Tuesday.
Nutrient-rich water sent from Lake Okeechobee into the rivers has reportedly killed oysters and sea grass, and caused a toxic algae outbreak that has forced Martin County health officials to warn residents against coming into contact with the water.
The local communities have been battling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the releases since May.
The releases from the lake are intended to lessen stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake and thus avoid a scenario similar to when levees and flood walls broke in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Army Corps announced Thursday it would further cut the size of the releases starting Friday morning.
“Drier conditions in August have helped the lake fall into our preferred range,” Lt. Col. Tom Greco, Jacksonville District Deputy Commander for South Florida said in a release. “However, the lake is still elevated for this time of year. A significant storm in the next few weeks that causes a rise in the lake could put us in the position of having to increase flows from the lake again.”
The current lake level is 15.44 feet. The Corps strives to keep the lake level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. The Corps will closely monitor conditions and adjust flows as necessary.
The short-term work will shift about 1 billion gallons a day to the south, reducing the amounts expected to be sent both east and west. Currently, about 3 billion gallons a day is sent out from the lake, with the larger share heading west.
During the peak of releases this summer, the east coast was receiving 3.2 billion gallons a day, Negron said.