Miami Herald

MIAMI (AP) – This spring, Florida lawmakers approved plans for a massive new reservoir near Lake Okeechobee, touting the billion-dollar project as a breakthrough in the decades-old effort to save the Everglades.

Less than a year later, South Florida water managers are struggling to make the ambitious project a reality – while environmental groups have begun to raise concerns that the plan is based on flawed data and that it may become a Trojan horse used to challenge long-standing water quality standards for the fragile Everglades ecosystem.

Hatched in the final days of the last legislative session after months of intense lobbying and championed by the powerful Senate president, Joe Negron, the plan called for construction of a large reservoir in western Palm Beach County aiming to do two things: Stop flushing foul water from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts, and fix the flawed re-engineering of South Florida’s tropical wetlands by sending water south to wilting marshes and Florida Bay.

Initially, a grander version pitched by environmentalists envisioned 60,000 acres. It included a portion of sugar fields long blamed for pollution and jump-started construction on a sprawling shallow reservoir south of the lake intended to clean water before it reached Everglades National Park – a project approved in a landmark Everglades restoration plan in 2000. The massive footprint allowed plenty of shallow storage to clean the water, a strict requirement hammered out through years of litigation that forced the state to stop polluting the Everglades.

What landed on the drafting table of South Florida water managers was substantially different.

Lawmakers, pushed by powerful sugar and agriculture interests, instead called for a reservoir on state-owned land below the lake. That meant squeezing a deeper reservoir onto a smaller footprint, with less land for cleaning water. They also sacrificed the valuable option to buy sugar land, requiring the South Florida Water Management District to relinquish the state’s only leverage to acquire more land – long before anyone knows for sure whether the down-sized reservoir and treatment marshes will work.

“They’re giving up something big here for something that might not work,” said William Mitsch, director of the Everglades Wetlands Research Park, who worried that without more treatment, “they’re just going to have another Lake O belching into the Everglades.”

The plan

As with most things tied to the Everglades, the project comes down to competing interests, opposing goals, and a state Legislature that has repeatedly shortchanged Everglades restoration. Water district planners have been left to sort it out and strike a balance, while working on an impossibly short deadline. Over the last several months, they’ve insisted they can get the job done, but as they race to meet a January deadline to present a report to lawmakers, skeptics are wondering if it’s really possible to dig a reservoir deeper than Lake Okeechobee in the middle of farm fields and not wind up with even more polluted water fouling the state.

“This will probably benefit the estuaries at the expense of water quality in the Everglades,” said Gene Duncan, water resources director for the Miccosukee Tribe. “I hope I’m wrong. But that’s what I think is happening.”

There’s also concern that the state will try to get around strict water quality rules it has fought through years of litigation. In December, a district governing board member, who has repeatedly complained about onerous rules, argued that it’s time to head back to court.

“What the state is angling to do, and it hasn’t been shy about saying so, is basically wipe the slate clean on nearly 30 years of ongoing federal and state litigation,” said Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades, which joined the Tribe to successfully sue the state to stop pollution.

The reservoir lawmakers approved is supposed to hold at least 240,000 acre feet of water, and can go as high as 360,000 acre feet. Planners have essentially designed two concepts: a 10,000-acre reservoir with about 6,000 acres of treatment marshes and a 22,000-acre reservoir with 9,000 acres of treatment.

So far, planners say both alternatives will cut polluted discharges by just over half and increase water flow by about a third. Combined with other projects, the amount of water moving south could nearly reach restoration goals for reviving marshes and Florida Bay.

But both would need reservoirs deeper than 18 feet, meaning they would need to meet costly new dam safety rules – with towering berms – developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The district has not said how high a dike would be, but on Dec. 21 staff estimated the total cost for the project at between $1.4 and $1.9 billion.

Managing a deep reservoir, and keeping it from becoming another polluted lake, is complicated, but district planners say it’s possible if they use an array of treatment areas already operating, including the world’s largest treatment marsh to the south. In recent years, the district has succeeded at cleaning up huge amounts of phosphorus using about 57,000 acres of shallow marshes. But questions have been raised about cleaning water in such a deep reservoir.

The model

The district is relying in part on a model called the DMSTA constructed at the start of restoration efforts to look at performance. The model has been tweaked over the years and updated, but was not fully revisited until last year, according to an internal report.

That study found the model still could not reliably forecast low levels of phosphorus under 25 parts per billion. Everglades marshes need water with no more than 10 parts per billion.

The model also struggles to determine how phosphorus settles – critical to understanding long-term performance – and tends to over-predict phosphorus during South Florida’s wet season and under-predict in the dry season, the study found. Another 2011 study found similar problems.

Hydrologists urged the district not to use the model in forecasting low phosphorus numbers until more progress was made on a science plan hammered out as part of the 2012 water quality lawsuit.

“The engine is a piece of crap,” said one engineer, who asked not to be named for fear of being drawn into legal battles. “All the beautiful numbers are really just guesses. They are not based on anything scientifically supportable.”

Bill Walker, one of the model’s authors, did not respond to emails, but at a reservoir meeting for government agencies he said model runs for the reservoir “may have led to optimistic results.”

Akin Owosina, the district’s Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau chief, said engineers are aware of the model’s limits, so they use it conservatively. It was used to plan the $1.9 billion Central Everglades Planning Project aimed at moving water south, he said, as well as a 15,000-acre basin designed to funnel water into a massive treatment area, he said.

The “real world performance is actually doing better than what the model simulated,” he said.

It is also the only model available, he said, and the one specifically required in the reservoir law that spelled out how the project would be designed.

“I’m sure there will be a better tool,” he said. “But until that tool is out there and accepted by all our partners, we keep with the tool everybody accepts.”

In response to criticism over the designs, district planners have also warned that they are hemmed in by constraints on purchasing land. The reservoir, they also added, is not intended to solve all the Everglades’ problems, just stop polluted discharges and finish another piece of the Everglades puzzle.

“We should be celebrating,” Matt Morrison, the bureau chief coordinating the district’s plan, said at one of 10 public meetings held since November. “When you look at what’s happening today versus what’s going to happen when these projects are built, there’s a huge difference.”

But is it big enough?

As designs became more refined in December, environmentalists began raising questions about the limited size and ability to pass muster with the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, which must sign off on plans to split costs.

District planners say they sent letters to nearby landowners, but none want to sell land or swap for other state-owned land that lawmakers expressly said could be used to expand the size of the reservoir. So they limited the design to land that’s available now. Environmentalists, who say federal environmental laws require a full array of options, want to know why.

“That feels like the tail is wagging the dog,” said Lisa Interlandi, Everglades Law Center senior staff attorney. “They’re saying we can’t get any more land, so we’re not going to look at the best project. Look at the project with the most environmental benefits and then compare.”

One of the options also uses land where a 15,000-acre shallow basin was finished last year to control the flow of water into treatment marshes. The basin has ended up cleaning water as well, so taking it out of commission has raised fears pollution will worsen – and reignite litigation.

Glades residents who have sided with the sugar industry made it clear they would fight “coastal elites and radical environmentalists” over any expansion after several environmental groups and Negron, R-Stuart, the law’s main backer, sent letters to the district and governor.

“We all agreed on the type of land, the amount and the exact location,” said former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor. “Legislation passed with great fanfare. Everybody got a pat on a back. Accolades and awards were handed out like candy.”

In fact after it passed, the state’s two powerful environmental groups that helped negotiate the bill – the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon – issued statements praising it. In December Audubon named Negron a Champion of the Everglades. Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said the law will “deliver what the Everglades needs.” But he also said getting more sugar land was a losing battle.

“The leadership of the state made it clear on multiple occasions that it had no desire to execute the option with U.S. Sugar,” he said. Instead, debate focused “on how to put enough tools in the toolbox” by freeing up other state land for swaps.

The foundation proposed an alternative that would double the size of treatment marshes and keep the reservoir to a shallower 14 feet. But would it require another 13,000 acres, which he says could be cobbled together by breaking leases on state land and making swaps.

“There’s not a land grab. It’s not trying to put people out of work,” he said. “It’s simply utilizing land that the taxpayer owns and maximizing it so you have a benefit here.”

U.S. Sugar, which chimed in regularly during the bill’s debate, has not commented on the plans, said spokeswoman Judy Sanchez.

“It has been a fascinating, although abbreviated, process,” she said in an email. “We are waiting to see what is in the January report to the Legislature.”

For now, whether the reservoir gets built or gets tossed on the planning heap remains to be seen. After presenting it to lawmakers, the district is scheduled to send it off to the Corps’ chief in March.

“It’s got a stream of revenue written into (the law) and that’s why it’s as far along as it is,” said Martha Musgrove, a former journalist and regional director for the Florida Wildlife Federation. “But until the bulldozers arrive and the leases are terminated and farmers start to go away, it’s not done. It will be in that never-never land of planning.”