By Joe Collins, Former chairman, South Florida Water Management District
Naples Daily News, August 7, 2016
In 2000, state and federal water managers began to undertake the largest and most advanced engineering and restoration project ever designed when they began the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hailed the plan as an “innovative, comprehensive, cutting-edge approach” that when completed “will be a win-win for the environment and the public needs of Southeast Florida.”
Representatives from environmental and agricultural communities joined elected Republicans and Democrats alike in praising the plan and eagerly awaiting its construction.
The plan was developed after years of studying the best approach to water storage, treatment and delivery of water to the Everglades ecosystem. The facts then, as they do now, suggested that the vast majority of the water enters Lake Okeechobee from the north, and that storage and treatment near the source is preferable before it enters into Lake Okeechobee.
When considering CERP, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) also considered many alternatives such as the flowway concept known as “Plan 6.” In recent months, some critics have revived calls for the flowway concept, but the plan’s real shortcomings still remain.
In 1999, for instance, the district commissioned a feasibility study looking into the flowway. The study concluded that the concept “creates a water supply burden on the system without clear hydrologic benefits.”
In a 2007 presentation to the governing board, district engineers and scientists noted that among other things, flows from a hypothetical flowway to Everglades National Park would remain too low, “exacerbate the already high stages in the northern parts” of the water conservation areas, and have “very low habitat suitability.”
Despite claims that the flowway would return Lake Okeechobee to a more natural state, the presentation concluded that “water deliveries to or from a flowway will never be natural because Lake Okeechobee has changed.”
In 2015, the University of Florida’s Water Institute study on Everglades restoration also noted the challenges with the flowway concept, concluding that “in both the (Corps of Engineers) Reconnaissance Report (1994) and the SFWMD River of Grass planning process (2009), results indicated that a passive … flowway is not the optimal approach for addressing problems of too much water going to the estuaries in the wet season or too little water going to the Everglades in the dry season.”
It was ultimately these factors that would cause SFWMD and the state and federal governments to develop the managed storage, treatment and delivery projects that make up CERP today. Once completed, CERP will provide tangible relief to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river basins and reduce the need to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee. Additionally, the projects, including the expansion of the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs, will store and treat water near the source before it flows into the estuary.
Leaders in Tallahassee and Washington need to finish what was started in 2000 and fully fund the CERP projects, which are designed to bring relief to the estuaries that are interconnected to the Lake Okeechobee system.
Progress has been frustratingly slow, and while it is tempting to get distracted by sound-bite science promising easy fixes, CERP continues to remain the best option for fixing Florida’s water problems throughout the Everglades ecosystem.
Collins is currently a vice president for Lykes Bros. Inc.