A construction project on the east coast of Florida that should improve water quality in the Southwest Florida area has been approved in the White House.
The Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Project, a project expected to help reduce polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee to local waterways, is slated to begin in October.
Phil Flood, the intergovernment and community outreach principal representative for South Florida Water Management District, confirmed the project is a go after President Barack Obama officially signed off on the project on June 10. This comes one month after Congress approved authorization of it and several months after lands for the project had been secured and plans had been designed and permitted.
"The project is now authorized, which is a big step," Flood said. "The next step is to get the construction dollars."
The project is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It's a cost-shared project between the federal government and the state of Florida.
C-43 project is one step towards improving water quality on both coasts of Florida.
"That project includes a number of strategies to move water south and to attenuate water flows on the east coast and the west coast," said Flood. "On the west coast, it involves constructing an above ground reservoir on about 10,500 acres. It's sole purposes is to improve the salinity balance in the estuary."
Flood said the idea would be to pull water out of the Caloosahatchee River during the rainy season when there is too much water flow. Stored water in that reservoir would be released during the dry season "to provide sufficient fresh water to keep the salinities at a healthy level" within the estuary.
"This is extremely important to the estuary because not only will we be able to capture some of the water during the high flows, but the water will be available to release back into the estuary during the dry season," he said
Flood pointed out the state legislature appropriated $18 million to be put toward partial construction of the reservoir.
"We, the water management district, are planning on breaking ground on that portion of the reservoir come October," he said.
Back on May 13, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson announced that the House and Senate committee overseeing the passage of the Water Resources Development Act -a bill authorizing federal funding for water projects nationwide- reached an agreement on the legislation. The WRDA authorized the release of $626.6 million to finish construction of C-43.
"We have spent roughly $100 million already in acquiring the land, designing it and permitting," said Flood. "That money will go towards our share of the estimated cost of the entire project. Roughly, there is another $500 million to actually do the construction."
The District representative stated the next step will come from the federal level with federal appropriations to begin construction.
"In the interim, what we intend to do with the $18 million is to construct an interim reservoir on 3,500 acres," he said. "We are going to build a large pump station to be used for the interim reservoir and used as a component of the big federal reservoir. We will also build some berms that we can then pump the water in and store it in there. Our intent is to build components of the federal project so that we will be able to get credit towards our share of the construction of the big project."
Each summer, heavy rains fill Lake Okeechobee causing high flow regulatory freshwater releases to be discharged from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This creates a disproportionate mix of fresh and salt water that eventually creates damage to the estuaries' coastal habitats. The lake releases are also known to involve back-pumped nutrient-rich water with large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that negatively affects water quality.
SFWMD and the Army Corps of Engineers are known for owning a 50/50 partnership in managing the decisions for the large reservoir of the Greater Everglades system, which includes Lake O and many of its estuaries.
Long-term projects that are still being looked into include acquiring more land for the C-43 reservoir (designed to hold 170,000 acre feet of water) and Central Everglades Planning Project (reconnect Lake O south with Everglades National Park, but water needs to be treated/cleaned) and the restoration of Herbert Hoover Dike (to enhance structural integrity and provide additional storage).
The WRDA is a piece of legislation that needs to be reauthorized every six or seven years, said Nelson.
Since last summer, water officials have been saying that their hands were tied in helping with water quality because the federal government hadn't authorized WRDA, and now with those funds released, environmentalists are hoping C-43 will improve the water in Southwest Florida.
Yet, construction of C-43 may not be enough to solve the problem.
Ray Judah, the coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition, has gone on record to describe the authorization of funds for C-43 as "insignificant." He said that last year alone, more than 500 billion gallons of water flowed from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River, most of which was full of pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous.
Estimates of C-43 put the maximum amount of storage at approximately 55 billion gallons of water, said Judah, meaning that in a particularly rainy season -- such as last year's flow of approximately 5 billion gallons a day, according to a study by the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation -- the reservoir could fill up in between 9 to 11 days.
And last year, there were four straight months of excessive flows from the lake, he said.
Furthermore, the C-43 project won't treat any of the water it stores, he said, meaning it will act as a giant incubator for toxic blue-green algae.
Judah has been advocating for part of the Everglades Agricultural Area to be purchased and used to convey water south, its natural and historical route before planners diverted the flow east and west.
Flood knows the C-43 project is not the full answer.
"I think everybody realizes that the reservoir is not THE solution. It is just one of several components that are needed," he said. "Through the Everglades restoration and through the Caloosahatchee River Watershed Protection Plan, there are numerous projects that are going to address not only water supply but also water quality concerns of the estuary."