MARTIN COUNTY — A proposal to funnel water from Martin County's largest rock mine to the city of West Palm Beach could ultimately result in larger discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Point Restoration, a rock mine in western Martin County, is considering diverting lake water from the St. Lucie Canal into the Lake Point property and selling it to utilities in Palm Beach County.
The water sales initiative would ratchet up the pressure on Lake Okeechobee as a source of drinking water, several environmentalists said. That could lead to more water storage, higher lake levels, larger discharges of polluted water into the St. Lucie Estuary and less water for the Everglades.
High water levels this fall resulted in the Army Corps of Engineers discharging 43 billion gallons of lake water into the estuary. The discharges jeopardize the future of the diverse ecosystem.
There is little Martin County can do to block the sale of water from the Lake Point property, The Stuart News has learned. The South Florida Water Management District, which controls drinking water supplies from north of Lake Okeechobee through the Florida Keys, has "sole and absolute discretion" over the Lake Point project.
Diverting polluted Lake Okeechobee water from the St. Lucie Canal would improve the quality of the water that ultimately flows into the St. Lucie Estuary, said Honey Rand, a spokeswoman for Lake Point and author of a book entitled "Water Wars: A Story of People, Politics and Power."
"It's the extraction of the polluted water in the canal that helps downstream in the estuary," Rand said. "Anything that reduces the amount of polluted water flowing to the estuary is an improvement."
But Maggy Hurchalla, an Everglades expert and former county commissioner, said the project will do little to help the estuary.
"It doesn't do what it says it will do," Hurchalla said. "It has no benefits for Martin County."
Powerful players are involved in the Lake Point project, including George Lindemann Jr., whose father presides over a $2 billion empire, and American Water, the nation's largest private utility company, which boasts $14 million in assets.
A two-month investigation by The Stuart News uncovered the following details about the Lake Point project, which is in a sparsely populated agricultural area in far southwestern Martin County, a mile east of Lake Okeechobee and just across Kanner Highway from the St. Lucie Canal:
Lake Point and American Water are considering a partnership so they can sell up to 35 million gallons of water per day from Lake Okeechobee via the St. Lucie Canal to utilities in Palm Beach County by sending the water down the L-8 Canal.
Lake Point is considered a public stormwater management project that is exempt from Martin County's strict land development regulations and permitting process, except for county mining rules.
A "reverter" clause would enable Lake Point to keep 1,800 acres of property designated for donation to the water management district as a stormwater treatment facility if authorities halt the mining operation for more than 120 days. The disincentive to stop work could make it more difficult to enforce state and county permitting conditions, such as the 20-foot limit on lake depths and the payment of hauling fees.
Lindemann Jr., a partner in Lake Point, and several Miami-based corporations associated with him have contributed $32,000 in the past five years to the political campaigns of three Martin County commissioners and two commission candidates.
New Martin County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard said this week she wants water management district and county officials to brief the commission on whether the Lake Point project has complied with all of its contractual agreements and permitting conditions.
Several Martin County environmentalists argue the Lake Point plan would result in utility demands to keep water levels in the lake higher to provide more drinking water. The higher lake levels would result in even greater discharges of polluted water into the St. Lucie Estuary in the aftermath of major rainstorms.
"We should take people off the lake for water supply and put them on groundwater," said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society and an expert on South Florida waterways. "There's not very much left over for the Everglades right now."
Lake Point's proposal to sell water from Martin County to utilities in Palm Beach County could trigger "water wars" with other governmental agencies, said Donna Melzer, a former county commissioner and president of the Martin County Conservation Alliance.
"It just adds an indirect straw into Lake Okeechobee waters," Melzer said. "They have to retain water because you have so many straws in it ... which is pressure to keep the water high, and then we get dumped on as soon as there's a big rain."
The water management district capped water allocations from Lake Okeechobee in 2008, said Randy Smith, a district spokesman.
record drought last year resulted in especially low water levels in the lake and left West Palm Beach unable to provide enough water to its customers.
The Lake Point property could be developed into a source of drinking water to help the region deal with water shortages, Rand said.
Lake Point representatives and American Water officials pitched the rock mine site as a permanent source of drinking water to the West Palm Beach City Commission during an Aug. 20 workshop. Lake Point would siphon water from the St. Lucie Canal and pump it into the L-8 Canal, which can be used to connect the rock mining site to a city reservoir about 20 miles to the southeast.
Limestone on the Lake Point property would remove phosphorous from the Lake Okeechobee water before it is sent down the L-8 Canal to Palm Beach County, said Mark Strauss, a senior vice president with American Water.
"This would provide high-quality water due to the natural filtration of the site," Strauss said. "There remains more work to be done, but we are convinced that this project is viable."
Lake Point's water supply initiative would require changes to the agreement calling for 1,800 acres to be donated to the district, said Bob Brown, assistant executive director at the water management district. The initiative also would require a permit from the district.
"I think that we would be in the position ... to issue a 50-year permit," Brown told the West Palm Beach city commissioners. "They would need a permit to pull from C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) into the project and ultimately then discharge down L-8 Canal."
The stormwater treatment facility could be made available to another government agency once Lake Point transfers the property to the water management district, said Doug Manson, a lawyer working with Lake Point.
The city could obtain control over the Lake Point stormwater treatment facility and sell water to other local governments, said West Palm Beach City Commissioner Shanon Materio.
"It would be possible if Martin County or Stuart were out shopping for water that we could say, 'We have water,'" Materio said.
Cane fields to rock mine
Much of the Lake Point property had been used for sugar cane fields for decades.
In May 2007, the Martin County Commission approved plans for the Lake Point Ranches subdivision with 44 agricultural lots ranging in size from 20 acres to 50 acres.
During the real estate boom of the early 2000s, some developers viewed rural Martin County as an ideal location for equestrian-oriented subdivisions that would lure horseriding enthusiasts from Wellington. But the collapse of the real estate market prompted Lake Point to change its focus to rock and sand mining.
In August 2008, the ranchette subdivision plans were replaced with a proposal calling for Lake Point to donate most of the site to the water management district in exchange for the right to excavate and sell rock from half the site for 20 years. That deal was finalized in May 2009.
A key selling point of the deal was Lake Point's offer to redevelop 1,800 acres into a stormwater treatment facility after the property is donated to the district.
The facility would cleanse polluted water from Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Canal, according to water management district records. The treated water would be sent south down the L-8 canal to Palm Beach County, or returned to Lake Okeechobee or the St. Lucie Canal.
Stormwater treatment lakes would be created from the mining pits.
So far, more than 3.6 million cubic yards of rock and sand — about 200,000 dump truck loads — have been hauled off the Lake Point property, more than four times as much as the next largest mine in Martin County. The mining operation could continue for decades, depending on demand for the material, Rand said.
Lake Point has provided rock and sand for a variety of projects such as the Herbert Hoover Dike Repair and Rehabilitation, the Veterans Memorial Bridge linking Stuart and Palm City and the expansion of Interstate 95 in Jupiter. Lake Point is also expected to provide raw materials for the New Big John Monahan Bridge in Indiantown.
Critics of the project say the agreement lacks safeguards to prevent Lake Point from exceeding Martin County's strict development rules, including a 20-foot limit on lake depths that was established to minimize potential impacts to wetlands, aquifers and water quality.
There also is little to keep Lake Point from abandoning the project without completing the stormwater management facility, Lake Point critics said.
Heard said she wants to revisit the Lake Point agreement with the new more environmentally oriented commission majority that assumed control on Nov. 20.
"It's a bad deal," Heard said about the May 2009 agreement Martin County signed off on. "Anytime that we've made a bad decision and that there are harmful results as a result of a decision, we should do everything we can to correct that wrongdoing. And we can make some attempts at correction. We can keep them from
causing further harm, causing further damage."
Heard said she would rather allow Lake Point to keep all of the property to be transferred to the district and county than allow any violations of county development rules — including those involving mining and land use.
Lake Point advocates argue the project provides environmental and economic benefits.
Lake Point employs 30 to 35 workers on the rock mining site, Rand said. Dozens more workers are involved in trucking the materials to construction sites.
Lake Point went through all the required county and state and permitting processes, Rand said. Lake Point also has been a good corporate citizen, joining chambers of commerce, participating in an Adopt-a-Class program, and contributing to the March of Dimes.
"The Lake Point project is an innovative public-private partnership intended to promote Everglades conservation and improve water quality for various natural habitats, while providing essential raw materials for infrastructure and restoration projects," Lake Point Restoration literature says.
Hurchalla disagreed, saying the project won't help Everglades restoration.
"The biggest key question of Everglades Restoration and the whole plumbing system of South Florida," she said, "is how to keep from keeping Okeechobee so full that you're always dumping it or it's always about to break the dike, and how to have enough water for these existing users."
The Lake Point stormwater treatment facility is far too small to clean massive discharges of polluted water flowing from Lake Okeechobee, Hurchalla said.
"You could build stormwater treatment areas all along C-44 (the St. Lucie Canal) and run the water around and around and around in them, but when they're dumping Lake Okeechobee that wouldn't make a dime's worth of difference," Hurchalla said.
The rocks beneath the Lake Point property are too porous to store water, and the stormwater treatment facility would be too expensive to operate, Hurchalla said.
The Lake Point property was not targeted for acquisition as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Hurchalla said. And the Army Corps of Engineers is building a much larger Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area farther east on the St. Lucie Canal.
It makes no sense to drain more water from Lake Okeechobee to supply utilities in Palm Beach County, Hurchalla said.
"There isn't more water to give away in Lake Okeechobee," she said. "Why would the (water) district be celebrating they found a backdoor way to give away more water from Lake Okeechobee?"
Here are the highlights of Lake Point Restoration's agreement with South Florida Water Management District:
Lake Point has the right to mine rock and sand from a 1,006-acre section of its 2,255-acre property at 25818 S.W. Kanner Highway for up to 20 years.
After the mining operation is completed, Lake Point will redevelop about 1,800 acres of land into a stormwater treatment facility and donate the property to the South Florida Water Management District.
The water management district has "sole and absolute discretion" over all aspects of the development and operation of the Lake Point project.
The Lake Point project is exempt from the county's permitting requirements because it is a public stormwater management project.
Ownership of the property will revert back to Lake Point if authorities terminate or suspend the mining approvals for more than 120 days.
Martin County will receive 150 acres of land on Kanner Highway for use as a county recreation area.
The Martin County Property Appraiser's Office set a 2012 market value for the Lake Point Restoration property that is nearly $42 million less than the amount the owners paid for the land in 2008. Assistant Property Appraiser Mike Fribourg said the buyer paid a relatively high price for the isolated agricultural tract and the real estate market has plummeted since the purchase.
Lake Point site size: 2,255.73 acres
Total 2008 purchase price: $47,784,800
Total 2012 property appraiser market value: $5,795,080
Lake Point Phase 1: 1,006.57 acres
Jan. 4, 2008 purchase price: $29,573,600
2012 property appraiser market value: $2,602,990
Lake Point Phase 2: 1,224.4 acres
Sept. 24, 2008 purchase price: $18,211,200
2012 property appraiser market value: $3,060,700
Lake Point Southfront: 24.78 acres
Jan. 1, 2008 purchase price: $0
2012 property appraiser market value: $131,090
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