Speakers at the 32nd annual Everglades Coalition conference in Sanibel over the weekend highlighted the complexity of restoring the Everglades ecosystem -- though the theme of the event, “Three Estuaries, One Solution,” concentrated largely on the benefits of sending and storing water south of Lake Okeechobee.
The damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries in 2016 were a prominent focus at the conference, but there was also significant good news shared. “The successes are far too numerous to name in any meaningful way,” said Shannon Estenoz of the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Everglades Restoration Initiatives.
Estenoz’s career in Everglades restoration spans 20 years. In a breakout session on federal priorities, she highlighted a number of recent successes including congressional approval of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) and an update to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the Modified Waters and C-111 project in South Dade coming within 18 months of completion, bridging to allow water flow under the Tamiami Trail, and the kick-off of the Western Everglades Restoration Plan.
Similarly, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) Lt. Colonel Jennifer Reynolds noted successes in Kissimmee River restoration and with the Picayune Strand project. “It might not be happening as fast as we want, but it is happening,” Reynolds said of the overall Everglades restoration efforts.
Reynolds said 28 miles of the Kissimmee River have been restored, resulting in a five-fold increase in the wading bird population. And, two of the Picayune structures are hydrating wetlands in Southwest Florida with similar results.
ACE and federal panelists repeatedly emphasized the importance of the partnership of federal, state and local governments in the restoration efforts.
Speaking in a plenary session, ACE General C. David Turner said the Army Corps wants to be a partner in restoring the complex environment of the Everglades.
“Restoring the historic water flow south into Everglades National Park is a complex endeavor requiring many projects to work in concert. The entire Everglades ecosystem is interconnected so all our projects are located throughout the system; they all work together,” said Turner. “Nothing about the Everglades restoration is easy or straightforward.”
Turner added that the Corps’ focus continues to be on completion of projects currently under way as outlined in the Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS). He added that the IDS is a living document and that the Corps is open to changing the schedule as funds are available.
In contrast, another plenary panel member, the Everglades Foundation’s senior scientist Thomas Van Lent, Ph.D. (civil engineering), had a more singular focus. Van Lent presented a slide claiming storage south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area would result in a 45-49 percent decrease in water volumes to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, while a northern reservoir would only decrease volumes by 6 percent. Van Lent, however, did not provide supporting documentation, but did make the point that, having no new outlet for water, northern storage was not as beneficial. His slide is displayed on this page.
“You can’t store your way out of a flood,” said Van Lent of a northern reservoir, while adding that a reservoir south of the lake would be able to flow water into the Everglades.
However, water flowing into the Everglades must meet stringent water quality standards. In a follow-up interview, Van Lent acknowledged this constraint and the fact that an EAA reservoir would fill quickly in a wet year as in 2015-2016, but he did not directly respond to questions about how the stored water would be cleaned quickly enough so it could flow out into the Everglades.
Turner emphasized that Everglades restoration has to be looked at as a system and looked at as how that system will operate. “It’s easy to look at myopic parts of an overall restoration program,” he said.
With the imminent change in leadership in Washington, several conference speakers speculated on what changes might be expected once President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Some pointed out that, as a significant property owner in South Florida, Trump would be in favor of continued investment in Everglades restoration. Others suggested he would focus on the economics of the project.
Michael Maloney, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Clemson University’s Department of Economics, was commissioned by the Everglades Foundation to evaluate the economic benefits of a southern-versus-northern reservoir.
Using Van Lent’s figures on the relative decreases in discharges between the two reservoirs, Maloney’s study calculated the value of water quality to residents and businesses. The study in turn used research done by Florida Realtors in Martin and Lee counties, which estimated the increases or decreases in property values of homes on or near waterways based on water quality.
Maloney said his study, which has not been released, calculated the benefit of a southern reservoir to be $15 billion. With the project cost of the reservoir calculated at $2.5 billion, Maloney said the result would be an economic surplus of over $12 billion. “That would create 150,000 jobs,” he said. Maloney further claimed the economic benefits of a northern reservoir would not cover the costs.
Maloney said his study was initially funded by the office of U.S. Rep Curt Clawson, R-Florida, with an original budget of $150,000, but was halted without explanation after about six weeks. The Everglades Foundation funded about $60,000 of the budget that hadn’t been paid, he said. The study, still in draft form, is in the foundation's to do with what it will, and likely will be released at an unspecified date, according to Maloney.
Probably the most frequent topics at the conference were Legacy Florida legislation designating Amendment 1 funding to expedite restoration projects reducing discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries and Senate President Joe Negron’s proposal to use the funds to purchase 60,000 acres of EAA lands for a reservoir.
Representatives from the Interior Department and ACE explained that, until a land parcel is actually included in the IDS, it isn’t considered part of CERP but that available land in the right place at the right time could speed up the process and could ultimately be incorporated into a CERP project.
“We’ve talked to Sen. Negron at length. He wants to see Component G of CERP (Central Everglades Planning Project) come to fruition,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. “So, that’s what this proposal is about and hopefully that land is purchased so that we can have planning and design and a project that can go forward.”
Eikenberg added that Negron’s proposal for purchasing land for water storage in the EAA is what the theme of this conference is about. “That’s what this rallying effort is behind,” he said
St. Lucie County-based Maureen Saltzer, formerly a publisher with Freedom Communications and the Knight Ridder group, is a communications consultant with Solutions Partnership, LLC. She wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.
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