The Sunshine Economy: River of Grass, Dying of Thirst

Mar 15, 2017

The lingering nature of water through the Everglades has been matched by the slow progress toward the massive goal of reviving the region with more water and cleaner water.

It’s been 17 years since President Bill Clinton signed into law the bill that included the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. That began the modern day effort to restore the Everglades after a century of draining and redirecting the water to create today’s South Florida.

More than half way through the expected time frame for the work only a half dozen projects are underway.

Funding, politics and economic interests have held back progress toward restoring more water flow through the system.

 

ENTIRE COVERAGE: RIVER OF GRASS, DYING OF THIRST

 

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, called water storage south of Lake Okeechobee his No. 1 personal priority for the spring legislative session.
Credit Miami Herald

Florida Senate President Joe Negron hopes to change that this year. He wants lawmakers to approve spending $750 million to buy land and build a reservoir to store water south of Lake Okeechobee. That southern storage is in the original Everglades plan, but planning is scheduled to begin in 2021.

In March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for managing Lake Okeechobee and is the federal agency overseeing Everglades restoration, reversed course. It now says a southern reservoir project should not be sped up.

 

That runs contrary to what Negron hopes to do with his legislation.

 

"I keep hearing people talking about doing something in 2021 or 2025. That's not acceptable to me," he said before the legislative session began. "We're not just going to study things and wait and expect people to endure this havoc wreaked upon their communities."

 

The havoc Negron is talking about was toxic green algae. It formed last summer on the east coast of Florida when the freshwater of Lake Okeechobee poured out through the St. Lucie Canal in an effort to bring down the lake’s water level. The polluted water flowed through the canal fueling an algae bloom fouling waterways and beaches.

 

15.5 FEET

 

Fifteen and a half feet is as high as Lake Okeechobee is allowed to go before the Corps of Engineers opens the flood gates -- literally -- letting loose hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to the east and west of the lake. The corps manages the lake level for public safety and flood control. When it's over 15.5 feet or swelling fast, the corps gives the order to bring the lake level down.

 

After record rains last winter, the lake swelled to over 16 feet and the corps opened the gates, increasing the water flowing to the east and west in order to reduce the lake level. By early March of last year, the lake was back under 15 feet, but the higher discharges continued as the corps worked to reduce the lake further ahead of the wet season.

 

Then in June and July, the green, toxic guacamole-like algae choked marinas on the east coast and closed some beaches for a few days.

Historic and predicted Lake Okeechobee water levels

AG INTERESTS

The original Negron plan was to buy 60,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee to store water on it. A revised plan, which was approved by the Senate, cuts the size and the price tag. But U.S. Sugar, which had a deal to sell thousands of acres to the state a decade ago, said there’s no need to buy land.

U.S. Sugar's Judy Sanchez says there is no need for more land purchases south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage.
Credit Teresa Frontado

"Storage south of the lake is part of ongoing restoration and it's part of future projects that are already part of the planning process," said Judy Sanchez, director of corporate communications for U.S. Sugar. WLRN spoke with her before the legislation was changed. "There is no need to acquire other land for that because the land has already been acquired."

She’s referring to thousands of acres the state has bought from U.S. Sugar and others, and the planning process for water storage included in the original Everglades restoration project. The state still has an option to buy more land from U. S Sugar as part of a deal negotiated 10 years ago.

"U.S. Sugar and the other sugarcane and vegetable farmers in the Everglades Agriculture Area have given up 120,000 acres of very productive farmland in the name of restoration," she said. "We support storage north, south, east and west of the lake, but they don't need to purchase additional land south of the lake."

Neither northern nor southern storage can guarantee an end to the lake discharges and the threat of algae blooms. And that gets at the heart of debate over Everglades restoration efforts: how to minimize negative economic impacts while addressing increasingly urgent ecosystem problems.

Editor's Note: Portions of this report were updated to reflect changes made to Senate Bill 10 since the original broadcast.