The Lake Okeechobee Greater Everglades Ecosystem includes 16 counties, 164 cities, $2 trillion of economic impact and 55% of the real estate vale in the state of Florida. During South Florida’s annual wet season, roughly 60 inches of rainfall provides for ample water that replenishes the aquifers which provide drinking water to 8.1 million people in South Florida. This unique ecosystem exerts a dominant influence over Florida’s hydrologic cycle and seasonal weather patterns.
Everglades National Park is a World Heritage Site and one of America’s unique environmental assets. Every dollar spent on its restoration generates $4 in economic benefit to Florida and the United States.
Decades of agriculture, ranching and explosive population growth combined with flood control projects which have channelized and drained the Kissimmee, Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and the Everglades marshes, have significantly degraded the quality of the water in the lake and connected waterways.
Poor water quality and federal limits on the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged into the Everglades requires appropriate clean up before any attempt to move water south into the marshes and Florida Bay.
The system is now less than ½ its original size and the lake fills up 6 times faster than it can be drained, which generates massive discharges into the rivers, estuaries, bays and beaches on the east and west coasts. In 2016, Florida has experienced over 200 days of Lake Okeechobee water being dumped east and west.
Primary issues and challenges which result from this are:
- Polluted water reaching the delicate estuaries, rivers, bays and beaches both east and west.
- Inability to deliver needed clean water to the Everglades to prevent the marsh from drying out and to protect the ecology of the bay, its protective mangrove perimeter and sport fishing industry in the Florida Keys.
- Imbalances of salt and fresh water between periods of drought and flood impact the ecology of the estuaries which are the base of the marine ecosystem, creating conditions for algae and harmful micro-organisms, and can inhibit operations of drinking water facilities in the upper Caloosahatchee River, e.g. the Olga water Treatment Plant.
In December 2000 the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was passed by Congress and signed by the President. CERP created a long-term partnership between Washington and Florida by calling for the construction of 68 projects, over 30 years at a cost, at the time, of $8 billion. The federal/state partnership requires a 50/50 cost share on all restoration projects.
CERP projects include storage and treatment features on the north, east, south and west sides of Lake Okeechobee. Storage and treatment south of Lake Okeechobee is critical in order to improve freshwater flows southward to the Everglades and to Florida Bay. This also reduces damaging discharges to the estuaries while helping balance salinity and improve water quality. This involves restoring “sheet flow” across wide areas of the marshes to replace the compartmentalized system which exists today.
One key project of the CERP which was not authorized in 2000 is the Central Everglades Project (CEPP). CEPP is included in the recently passed WRDA legislation that now awaits House and Senate Conference. CEPP implementation will remove man made barriers to flow water through the central Everglades. While CEPP is not a water storage project, it provides the treatment and conveyance capacity needed to flow more clean water through the system where water will re-charge the aquifer and provide water supply to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
As it relates to funding, to date, the state has spent nearly $2 billion on CERP projects while Washington has funded $1.1 billion. The White House and Congress must ensure it continues to fund its 50% share of the CERP.
There are also collateral projects that, while not part of the CERP, are equally important:
- Fortification of the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake to prevent catastrophic failure during flood periods. This work is underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but can be accelerated if funding were appropriated ($800 million will be needed to complete this).
- Extension of the Tamiami Trail (US 41) bridging project so water can flow south under the road into the marshes and then reach Florida Bay. The 1st mile was paid for by the federal government, a contract for the next 2.6 miles of bridging has been awarded and the state and federal government will split the roughly $180 million price tag. Following the next 2.6 miles of bridging, an additional 2.9 miles of bridging is expected.
In summary, long-term funding commitment to the execution of the CERP and related projects is critical to the future of Central and Southern Florida. Each year brings more destruction of the Greater Everglades. Harmful impacts of flood or drought conditions in the watershed increase the long-term damage to the ecosystem and threaten our local economies and the lives of our resident.
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