NewsProtecting Paradise

Actions

Sending more water south of Lake Okeechobee begins with blasts -- lots of them

New 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area under construction near South Bay
South Bay blast for water restoration project
Posted at 12:15 PM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 18:37:14-04

SOUTH BAY, Fla. — Send more water south or more precisely send more clean water south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.

Those refrains have long been the focus of environmentalists from the Treasure Coast to Florida Bay and beyond.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Protecting Paradise

A broadsheet flow of water is how nature made its blueprint, with Lake Okeechobee at the heart of an aquatic marvel stretching north and south.

For many thousands of years that water nourished the famed "River of Grass" until man came along to create a network of canals to protect South Florida's booming population from floods.

The end result -- environmentalists argue -- is a stunted, dying Everglades and fouled waterways on the Treasure Coast.

Nature never intended freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, and the giant watershed atop it, to flow east and west, upsetting the brackish water in which estuaries, their fisheries and the people who depended on them long thrived.

Construction management engineer Tim Harper oversees stormwater treatment project near Canal Point
Construction management engineer Tim Harper overseas the project.

Moreover, the increasing frequency of toxic algae-laden water has created huge, additional worries over the past decade.

Now, after decades of stops and starts, work is underway south of South Bay in western Palm Beach County.

The goal is to mimic nature. Engineering and construction teams, working under the guidance of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), are busy carving and blasting pathways for a new 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area (STA).

The plan is to send more water south via existing canals from the big lake, clean it in filtering marshes, then send it to the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The SFWMD said the new STA is set to be fully operational by late 2024.

Randy Smith, South Florida Water Management District supervisor
South Florida Water Management spokesman Randy Smith calls the plan one of the largest environmental projects in the U.S.

The other big project is the long-talked-about 10,500-acre reservoir that will sit next to the STA. It will be built by the Army Corps of Engineers within the next decade under current timetables.

The hope is that the reservoir becomes another big piece of the effort to reduce water flows east and west and aids in the effort to store and eventually send more clean water south.

The combined estimated cost of the STA/reservoir projects comes to $3.5 billion, which will be split 50/50 between state and federal dollars.

However, there is controversy. There always has been when it comes to water, and water use, in South Florida.

Sugar growing interests have filed a lawsuit saying the Army Corps reservoir project threatens to cut the amount of water they are promised for their crops under longstanding rules.

Environmentalists said the lawsuit is without merit, but it is one more piece of this evolving story we will be looking into as the goal to "send more water south" begins, after decades of wrangling, to come off the drawing boards.