Feds planning a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee, looking at other options
The U.S. Amry Corps of Engineers is planning a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee in hopes of getting more storage in a system that's been off balance, hydrologically, for decades.
Jennifer Reynolds, with the South Florida Water Management District, said Friday during the 38th annual Everglades Coalition conference, held in Coral Springs, that the federal agency is focused on all aspects of water storage – from storing water on farmlands to building aquifer storage and recovery plants.
"That means they're planning for a reservoir north of the lake," Reynolds, who once worked for the Army Corps, told the audience. "The funding is there, the commitment is there. How do we work with (non-government organizations), the tribes and the public. It's a watershed moment and storage (north of the lake) is just on the horizon. "
The greater Everglades consists of lands and wetlands to the north, west, east and south of Lake Okeechobee, and the water system stretches from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.
Larger aquifer storage and recovery projects and other storage options have been discussed for lands north of the lake for decades, but Eva Valez, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Jacksonville, said the agency is looking more closely this year at potential projects north of the lake.
"We really need this flexibility of storage north of Lake Okeechobee, and our leaders have asked the Corps to find storage this year," Valez said. "Our team has been given that guidance, to start looking at storage in the watershed again."
Renowned world-wide for its unique landscape, the Everglades has seen increasing water quality problems in recent years.
Algal blooms in 2018 plagued the Caloosahatchee River system so badly that some residents sold their homes and moved away from Florida altogether.
A state of emergency was declared by the state for a toxic blue-green algal bloom in the river that summer while another state of emergency was enacted due to a raging red tide that lingered along the coast for about a year-and-a-half.
The program continues Saturday. The effort consists of a several groups — like the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the National Parks Conservation Association, Audubon, Earthjustice, the South Florida Water Management District and 1,000 Friends of Florida.
Paul Gray, with Audubon Florida, was the moderator for the panel that included Reynolds. He said that he is concerned that more water quality problems will plague the Southwest coast later this year.
"In 2017 Hurricane Irma came in and the lake went up 3 feet in one month because there was a lot of rain with it," Gray said. "That year 1,000 tons of phosphorus went into the lake, and the hope is 100 (tons). (Hurricane) Ian came in and (Hurricane) Nicole came in, and the lake went up 4 feet in two months. … Ian put in a lot of nutrients, and we're worried about triggering cyanobacteria and feeding it."
Nutrients are so dense in the lake that scientists estimate it would take 150 years for Okeechobee to naturally flush itself of pollution, assuming the pollution loading stopped.
And, as Reynolds pointed out, Lake Okeechobee is about half the size it was historically.
"We have big problems in these northern watersheds, and small thinking is not going to get us there," Reynolds said.
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This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: State, federal water managers say storage north of Lake Okeechobee is key