Central Florida is in a dry period. Southwest Florida communities affected by the Caloosahatchee River need water from Lake Okeechobee right now.
Not to worry, say South Florida Water Management District officials. Despite the low lake level -- 12.29 feet on Sunday -- they'll get their water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make sure of that.
But what happens later on? What happens if Senate President Joe Negron's Senate Bill 10 passes and dirty water is pumped straight into the lake, left to flow south into the southern deep reservoir described in his bill? It will no longer be available for the Caloosahatchee.
Lee County officials reckon they've got the situation wired. They have the $600 million C-43 reservoir under construction and due to be completed in 2022.
"No environmental project is more important to Lee County than the C-43 reservoir," Kurt Harclerode, operations manager and spokesperson on water issues for Lee County, told Sunshine State News.
With support and funding from Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2015, SFWMD responded by getting an early start on construction of the C-43 West Basin storage reservoir almost a decade earlier than planned.
Said Mitch Hutchcraft, SFWMD Governing Board member who represents Lee County, "When this massive facility is finished, up to 170,000 acre-feet of water will be stored and delivered during dry periods to help maintain a healthy flow of fresh water to the estuary." He said dry periods are the condition the Caloosahatchee experiences more frequently than high flow. During the rainy season, he said, the C-43 will store some of the excess stormwater and federal regulatory releases from Lake Okeechobee and the basin, and will help reduce excessive freshwater flows to the estuary.
The reservoir is expected to handle 55 billion gallons of stormwater runoff from lands adjacent to the river. It's particularly important for cleaning water in the Caloosahatchee before it reaches estuaries and beaches. Cost for the three years of construction on the first cell of the project is $300 million.
But here's the rub.
Negron's south reservoir plan would put the Integrated Delivery System (IDS) at risk. The IDS isn't just the timetable for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, it's the sequencing. To attempt meeting the 2018 reservoir date in the Negron plan, money set for other Everglades projects might have to be shifted -- and that could disrupt the IDS.
The C-43's completion date is expected to be 2022. The project isn't safe for completion if the U.S. Army Corps needs to spend the money elsewhere.
"The Integrated Delivery System is important," said Matt Morrison, bureau chief of federal policy and coordination for the SFWMD. "It means projects are meant to be built on each other, one after another in sequence. It brings predictability to the budget and keeps everybody's focus on the finish line.
"From a west coast perspective, we need more water -- 70-75 percent of our low water flow. But without a federal commitment, there's a very real risk there wouldn't be money for that project to be on line when it's needed," he said.
The federal government is already behind in paying its share of Everglades restoration. Should plans change again -- as they did eight years ago when the massive A-1 reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee was dismantled because Gov. Charlie Crist was sure the state could buy out U.S. Sugar Corp. -- more money could be lost, and with it hopes for the reasonable completion of the C-43 and other projects in a broken IDS.
"Deliver the dirty water coming down from the north into the lake and it goes south. It can never be moved back north," Morrison said. "That's why the C-43 is so dependent on northern storage."
Said Lee County's Harclerode, "Our County Commission supports the IDS because our C-43 project is under way. But it hasn't got a position on Senate Bill 10. Now, if something else were to leapfrog over us -- anything that takes the focus off our project, then that would be bad. We're watching it."
The University of Florida study acknowledges that 1 million acre feet of storage is needed -- but, it points out, three-quarters of that is needed north of Lake Okeechobee. And when cleaned, it goes back into the lake, as it should.
By keeping the IDS on track, projects for northern storage will keep a minimum of 50 percent of lake discharges out of the St. Lucie River, according the just-released Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project.
But passing SB 10 -- Morrison called the federal process involved to meet Negron's 2018 deadline "very challenging." Frankly, I think he was politely giving me the old Mafia saw, "Forget about it." Florida would have to deauthorize one project, get the post-authorization change, prepare a design report and include the reservoir's boundaries, get the appropriations approved, then approval for construction. We're looking at three years just to design such a deep reservoir.
The last CERP project took 4-5 years to authorize.
Meanwhile, everything else is hung up. Federal money that was earmarked to continue already scheduled projects is likely to disappear as other needy states with their acts together convince Congress they're more deserving. It's something that keeps happening.
And the Negron plan will require more land than it claims because water from the deep reservoir will require hundreds more acres to complete a clean-up before the water can move toward Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
SB 10 gives a lot of jobs to SFWMD. So, why haven't senators asked to hear from the District's staff and engineers? It can't be because they don't trust them -- otherwise, they wouldn't have so included their expertise in a $1.5 billion bill.
Let's see through to completion the Everglades restoration plan now in motion, including storage for 200,000 acre feet of water that opened up in the CEPP Plan and the SFWMD Florida Bay Plan -- which includes a project along Taylor Slough west of Homestead. Levees, weirs, pump stations -- everything has been procured. It should be finished by mid-summer.
The new Senate Bill 10 is no more attractive, no more able to solve the problem of algae blooms than the two prior bills. And for Lee County waiting desperately for the C-43 reservoir, it's truly turned into a craps shoot.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith