The dark discoloration of water in our estuaries and massive clumps of red drift algae along our Gulf beaches is a vivid reminder of the harmful discharge of polluted water from lake Okeechobee during the summer of 2013. Once pristine blue waters so essential to our quality of life and multibillion dollar tourism and Real Estate industries has rapidly degraded due to excessive discharge of water laden with chemical waste such as insecticides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers including nitrogen and
phosphorous from agricultural operations including sugar cane fields in the Lake Okeechobee watershed.
In the 2014 Legislative session, a Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin will present a report with recommendations to address short- and long-term solutions to reduce or eliminate excessive releases from Lake Okeechobee. Although the report states that "providing a path southward for water in Lake Okeechobee is a key component to fully managing discharges east and west from the lake", the report dismisses a proposed flow-way in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee as a viable solution to store, treat and convey water south from the lake to Everglades National Park. In 2008, George Cavros prepared an analysis of a storage flow-way plan to restore and protect the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Estuaries, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades in a comprehensive and detailed report for the Rivers Coalition that demonstrated a flow-way south of the lake to be the most practical and cost effective solution to alleviating the massive releases of water from Lake Okeechobee that is causing adverse harm to coastal estuaries.
The Senate Committee's report further states that "there are a number of water projects, both proposed and underway that, once completed, will significantly increase the water storage capacity in south Florida." Unfortunately, the numbers pertaining to the water storage capacity of the referenced projects do not add up to adequately address the devastating discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
The Central Everglades Planning Project including the additional 2.6 miles of bridging along the Tamiami Trail proposed under the joint partnership between the State of Florida and the U.S. Department of Interior is important to enhancing flow under the Tamiami Trail but will only convey approximately 210,000 acre feet (68 billion gallons) of water from Lake Okeechobee south to Everglades National Park. The balance of the drainage flowing south is from the EAA.
The C-44 Reservoir, with a 6,000-acre filtration wetland, that is under construction on the east coast will store approximately 50,000 acre feet (16 billion gallons) of water from surrounding agricultural drainage with no relief for Lake Okeechobee water release.
The C-43 Reservoir to be constructed with funding from the Water Resource Development and Reform Act is designed to only store 170,000 acre feet of water (55 billion gallons or less than 5 inches off Lake Okeechobee) and with no water quality component.
In an average year, approximately 1.4 million acre feet (455 billion gallons ) of water from Lake Okeechobee is released to the St. Lucie (400,000 acre feet or 130 billion gallons) and Caloosahatchee (1,000,000 acre feet or 325 billion gallons) that flows to the estuaries on the east and west coast of south Florida. In wet years, such as 2005 and 2013, approximately 2.5 million acre feet (812 billion gallons) of water was released from Lake Okeechobee to tide.
The proposed flow-way in the EAA south of Lake Okeechobee requires state acquisition of approximately 20,000 acres of U.S. Sugar lands and approximately 30,000 acres of Florida Crystals lands to provide sufficient storage, treatment and conveyance of water from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades. The combined acreage of 50,000 acres is only 7 percent of agricultural lands in the EAA and 15 percent of sugar cane fields thereby assuring a sustainable agricultural industry and restoration of Lake Okeechobee and Everglades and protection of coastal estuaries.
A Clean Water Action event is scheduled on Feb. 1, 2014 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Lee County Alliance of the Arts.
Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner.