They did what??

That was our response when we heard that the Army Corps of Engineers had slid in eleventh-hour language changes to an important new report on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir planned for south of Lake Okeechobee. The language locks us into a footprint that independent scientists have called grossly inadequate and reverses the Corps’ 2018 stated position that, as designed, the proposed project risked “non-compliance with water quality standards.”

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For communities looking for relief from Lake Okeechobee discharges, the EAA reservoir is one initiative with the greatest potential to help solve Florida’s water management crisis by reducing the need to send damaging releases to the northern coastal estuaries and increasing clean, freshwater flows south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Its success hinges on the design and implementation of a project that has enough water-treatment acreage to ensure that the completed reservoir can operate at full capacity without violating federal pollution standards.

As designed, independent analysis has determined that the $1.8 billion project can’t hit both water quantity and water quality targets without the addition of significantly more acreage dedicated to water treatment.

That’s a hell of a price tag to front on the backs of taxpayers without assurances that these concerns won’t tank the success of the project.

In response, environmental groups including our affiliated organization, Friends of the Everglades, sent an urgent letter to the Corps requesting a “return to the drawing board.”

The letter, submitted Monday afternoon as formal comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the reservoir, outlines 20 major areas of concern.

Among the key points:

  • The Army Corps unnecessarily constrained the footprint of the project to publicly owned lands, therefore limiting the ecological benefits of the EAA Storage Reservoir. Alternatives with a larger footprint should still be evaluated, as called for in Senate Bill 10, which the Florida Legislature passed in 2017.
  • The proposed 23-foot depth of the reservoir could actually create dirtier water, and fuel more harmful algal blooms — without adequate filter marshes to clean the water. In the interest of public health, alternatives with reservoir options between 6 and 12 feet should be studied.
  • The Army Corps has indicated the EAA Storage Reservoir will represent the “final increment” of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, even though it falls short of the 360,000 acre feet of storage articulated in Component G of CERP.

The letter points out that the EAA Storage Reservoir, as currently designed, “is yet another industrial-scale plumbing project that is as far from being a natural system as possible.”

“We don’t want to stop the project,” Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades and one of the letter’s authors, told TCPalm, “but we want it to work. Our intent is to keep pushing for a design and construction of the EAA reservoir that truly works.”

The Army Corps already gambled against human health this year, choosing to prioritize water storage this dry season rather than repeating the successful 2019 operations that lowered the lake before June 1 and saved the coastal estuaries from yet another toxic summer. If we end up with a hurricane this summer, they’ll tell us they’ve got no other choice than the emergency discharge of massive quantities of polluted water to the coastal estuaries. Of course, without using a change in operational management to prepare for the worst, and without a properly designed EAA reservoir to look forward to, that will be a half-truth, at best.

Truth matters, and the people of Florida win when they know all the facts. With your help, Bullsugar will continue to research and communicate the science, policy, history, and politics surrounding the problems and solutions to Florida’s water crisis. Please become a member today to help ensure that we remain a sharp and independent voice in the fight for clean water.