Florida has an abysmal record regarding its water resources in the past. The present promises a poor prognosis, as we do not learn from our mistakes. News-Press.com has published an article describing an eight-and-a-half hour helicopter tour taken by a Florida legislator, a water district scientist, and a person from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. There was plenty for them to see.View of Florida’s water from 1,000 feet
Recently, members of The News-Press were able to take an aerial tour of various state and federal water projects through south and central Florida. The water projects are critical to maintaining the integrity of the Everglades, storing water, cleaning water and protecting homes and agricultural lands from flooding. They also are critical in reducing the harmful discharges that flow into the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee and create our dirty water.
It was an important and informational view from 1,000 feet in the air. The helicopter tour presented a unique and breathtaking view of Florida’s massive and important environmental character, showing the immense size of areas like Big Cypress National Preserve, the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the various water storage and water treatment areas.
In some respects, the eight-and-half hour tour, which took the group as far south as Homestead, north to the Kissimmee River restoration project and west over what will become the 55 billion gallon water storage facility known as C-43 or the Caloosahatchee Reservoir. Joining The News-Press on the tour were state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers; Paul Warner, principal scientist for the South Florida Water Management District; Heather Martin, deputy director of legislative affairs for Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and two helicopter pilots from the water management district.
There could be several reasons why Caldwell and the water district scheduled this tour:
- They believed our news stories, editorials and many of the opinions from residents and other environmental experts were presenting a less than favorable view of how the district manages its various water projects.
- Our reporting fairly or unfairly connected them to U.S. Sugar, one of the top manufacturers in the state and a corporation which farms about 188,000 acres south of the Lake in Hendry, Glades and Palm Beach counties. It financially supports many of the campaigns of influential politicians in the state.
- Or that they just wanted The News-Press to get out from behind the mountains of documents that exist that show the history of water in the state, how the quality has declined over the years and what is being done now to improve and manage a very delicate ecosystem.
For The News-Press, this was about collecting information, to view first-hand what was happening and to connect what we have written and what we hear from hundreds of people each day about the state of our water.
We know that the dirty water that rushed down the Caloosahatchee in January after heavy rains and the dirty water that impairs the estuary today is not going away overnight. It will take years to reach the clean water levels we hope for to not only strengthen our environment, but also our economy.
We know that the dirty water that comes from Lake O starts north of the lake in what is flowing in from the Kissimmee River and other waterways. This water rushes into the lake six times faster than it can be released. It fills the lake during heavy rains, threatening the structural integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which has had more than a billion dollars’ worth of repairs and strengthening work such as rebuilding a series of culverts and creating an earthen wall within the dike.
We know that people blame U.S. Sugar and its farmers of sugar cane, citrus and other products for back pumping harmful chemicals, like phosphorous, into the lake when heavy rains flood agricultural lands. We know U.S. Sugar responds by saying it is meeting all environmental water quality standards, lawful back pumping only occurs in emergency situations and most of its land is south of the lake anyway, so it can’t possibly the be reason for our dirty water here.
We know that various government agencies – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Congress, Florida Fish and Wildlife, South Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Governor’s office, the state Legislature and countless other state, county and city agencies all try and work together to approve, fund and build various water projects to protect our environment. We also know that it is difficult to get all of them on the same page, meet the demands of environmental groups and for water quality legislated in the Congressional-approved Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act and recently approved Legacy Florida.
We know that the federal government is millions of dollars behind in funding its half of various state projects, although some, like the C-111 Spreader canal project for flood control in South Dade are fully funded at the federal level.
We know that criticism flowed aggressively after the state let a deadline to buy 46,800 acres of U.S Sugar land south of the lake for possible water storage and flood control come and go last year. But it is important to remember that even if that land had been purchased for approximately $350 million, it could not be used for 20 years based on the requirements of the contract. It is also important to note that any storage facility south of the lake would not help us during the season. That water could not be returned to the estuary to help control salinity levels during dry seasons.
The enormity of Lake O is hard to comprehend without actually seeing it. It is 35 miles long from north to south and 30 miles wide from east to west. Consider that when C-43 is finished, probably in February, 2021, it will have the capacity of storing the 55 billion gallons of water, but that only takes about 4.5 inches off a lake that can rise quickly to almost 18 feet during heavy rains, causing high discharges into the Caloosahatchee. That is not a lot of water when you consider one foot of water on the lake is about 146 billion gallons, and the lake is typically kept between 12 and 15 feet.
The water district and many others have stressed the importance of building water storage projects and cleaning water north of the lake. That is critical. If water is kept there and cleaned there, it improves our chances for smaller discharges of cleaner water.
That’s why the restoration project along the Kissimmee River is so critical. By back filling the canal, which was originally constructing to straighten the river and control flooding of farm land, and restoring natural, meandering canals and a vital flood plain critical to wild life, this project will help disperse and clean water before it reaches the lake. But there are other water arteries to the north that feed into Lake O that increases the importance of creating about 250,000 acre feet of additional storage.
This week, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, sent a letter to Pete Antonacci, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, asking that Gov. Rick Scott’s 20-Year Plan Integrated Delivery Schedule also include water storage projects south of the Lake and not just to the north. “Given the level of crisis the Caloosahatchee Estuary faces today we must act immediately to identify areas that can hold water to reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
Benacqusito was against buying the land south of the lake last year. She said that was mainly because of the 20-year period when the land could not be used for storage and flood control.
But water storage and water management north of the lake is critical at this time. It is a priority for the water district as it manages some 43 hydrologic, storage and nutrient reduction projects throughout the state.
Antonacci and district board member Mitch Hutchcraft met with The News-Press editorial board this past week. They reiterated the importance of finishing the projects already on the books, the need for storage north of the lake, as explained in a 158-page report on water quality by the University of Florida, and that there were thousands of acres of storage south of the lake already.
“Floridians have fractured voices, folks in Tallahassee have fractured voices,” Hutchcraft said. “We talk with environmental groups – we take this project off, but then we hear ‘No, we need those.’ But we need to do these other ones, too.”
This is all about time and money. C-43 carries a price tag of about $500 million, water restoration projects to improve water quality in the Everglades is another $880 million.
We all want our water to be clean and move south to the Everglades as quickly as possible. That will be done by creating better movement of water from the four canals that take water south of the lake through various storage and treatment areas, and under a series of bridges along the Tamiami Trail and into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
The view from 1,000 feet shows the enormity of this process. On the ground, we need all groups to listen, learn, communicate and keep restoration plans and financing on track.
Sampling of major Florida water projects
C-111 spreader canal project. (Photo: Tom Hayden / The News-Press)
C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project
Description: The C-111 is in the southern most canal of the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project. It is located in south Miami Dade County. The canal was built under the Flood Control Act of 1962 to extend flood protection while controlling and improving distribution of available water. The project is part of the Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act of 1989 to help protect the national park.
Purpose: To establish needed flood controls and to improve more natural water flows into the Taylor Slough and Everglades National Park, which helps improve the timing, distribution and quantity of water that flows into Florida Bay. This project also helps improve wildlife habitat impacting the park. Estimates are approximately 252,000 acres of wetlands and coastal habitat are affected by this project. The project also will begin restoration of the Southern Glades and Model Lands.
The 8.5 Square Mile Area (SMA) project
Description: A Modified Waters project, which is part of the SMA Flood Mitigation Plan to provide protection to the 8.5-mile SMA residential area, about 6 miles south of Tamiami Trail and east of Everglades National Park. It was authorized in 1989 by the Everglades National Park Expansion and Restoration Act. It is funded 100 percent by the U.S. Department of the Interior and being built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project includes the acquisition of approximately 4,320 acres of land, construction of a levy, seepage control, pump station and a 183-acre detention area.
Purpose: To establish more natural water flows to the Shark River Slough, which is one of the major sloughs that feed into the national park and restore similar conditions that existed in 1983.. The project is designed to allow more water into the water concentration areas and features a protective levy around the perimeter of the 8.5-mile project to help protect homes on the west side of the levy. It features a series of flood mitigation areas, including a seepage canal, a pump station and an 183-acre detention area.
Tamiami Trail one mile bridge
Description: The $91 million project features a new one-mile bridge and 9.7 miles of reinforced roadway.
Purpose: To create water flow under the roadway, which was creating a barrier and stopping water from flowing into the Everglades, Northeast Shark River Slough, the Taylor Slough and on into Florida Bay. Much of the project was completed in 2013, improving water flow into the park by 92 percent, according to the district.
Additional 5.5 miles of bridging
Description: A final environmental impact study in 2010 recommended bridging another 5.5 miles – or three spans of bridging – and raising the balance of the 10.7-mile section of Tamiami Trail. Recently, the next phase of the bridging project, a 2.6-mile section, broke ground. About $90 million of the projects costs will be funded by the state and the rest by the Department of Interior. It is supposed to be completed by 2020. The total coast of the bridging work and raised roadway is approximately $330 million.
Purpose: To improve water flow from the north into the Everglades National Park.
Broward County Water Preserve Areas Project
Description: This $900 million CERP project consists of three components: Two water impoundment areas and a water conservation area as part of seepage management. The project is located in western Broward and Miami-Dade counties and lands are bordered by Water Conservation Areas 3A/3B, Interstate 75 and the Miami Canal and is within the city limits of Weston, Pembroke Pines, Miramar and the town of Southwest Ranches.
Purpose: To reduce seepage (over an 11-mile area) from a water conservation area, to capture, store and distribute surface water runoff from a basin, provide flood protection for existing homes and increase the size of wetlands. Approximately 563,000 acres in a conservation area and 200,000 acres in the greater Everglades will benefit from this project. The project received congressional approval in 2014 as part of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act is is currently awaiting federal funding.
A-1 Flow Equalization Basin and storm water treatment area
Description: This is $889 million facility and is comprised of 21 miles of earthen levees and 15 water control structures. It is located between Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park, west of U.S. Highway 27 in southern Palm Beach County.
Purpose: To enhance water quality by meeting state water quality standards and providing 15,000 acres (4 feet deep) of water storage, holding 15 billion gallons of water. The basin captures storm water run off and collects water from Lake Okeechobee. The water is then fed into the storm water treatment area, cleaned and sent south to Everglades National Park.. There are three other flow equalization basins and storm water treatment areas in the state, including one in Palm Beach County, which is 950 acres but 53 feet deep, and can hold 15 billion gallons of water.
Kissimmee River Restoration
Description: The Kissimmee River water shed consists of a 1,600-square mile Upper Basin and 750-square mile lower basin that extends south from Lake Kissimmee to Lake Okeechobee. The river once meandered approximately 103 miles within a 1- to 2-mile flood plain. But from 1962 to 1971, the river was converted to a channelized system to provide flood protection with a series of impounded reservoirs controlled by water control structures. The straight channel did protect nearby farmland, but the flood plain then dried up and vegetation and wildlife disappeared. This is a $578 million project, which was launched in 1999, when back filling 7.5 miles of the canal begin, a new river channel was re-curved, a river control structure demolished, 15 continuous miles of river were reconnected and 11 acres of wetland reclaimed.
Purpose: The goal of this $578 million project is to re-establish 40 square miles of natural river/floodplain habitat, 27,000 acres of wetlands and 43 continues miles of meandering river channel. The goal is to acquire 110,00 acres of land, back fill 22 continuous miles of canal, demolish two water control structures, re-curve nine miles of the river channel and restore thousands of acres of wetland to provide habitat to 300 species of fish and wildlife that had once resided in the basin. A large flood plain has already been created, and what was once farmland 17 years ago is now home to abundant wildlife and strong vegetation growth. The natural flow of water and the wetlands help slow the movement of the water and remove harmful deposits of phosphorous that can flow into Lake O and eventually into the Caloosahatchee.
Caloosahatchee C-43 Western Basin Reservoir
Description: The project is part of the Everglades Restoration Plan and carries a price tag of about $600 million once it is completed in about five years. About $118 million has been invested so far. Preliminary testing work has started on this 10,500-acre water storage facility that will range from 15 to 25 feet deep and is located between Clewiston and Fort Myers in Hendry County, west of Lake O. Piles of clay 58 feet high will be pre-compressed into a solid layer to form the perimeter of the storage area and this work is expected to be finished by July of 2017. Then, two pump stations will be installed with construction expected to e finished in 2018 and 2020. The first cell, capable of holding 29 billion gallons of water, is expected to be completed by February, 2021. Both cells will eventually hold about 55 billion gallons
Purpose: To capture and store storm water runoff from the C-43 basin and Lake Okeechobee, reducing discharges of harmful and dirty water into the Caloosahatchee. It also will have the capacity to discharge water back into the river during dry seasons to help improve salinity balance for marine life.