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President’s approval of Water Resources Development Act hailed; funding pressure is next step

By Staff | Oct 24, 2018

The Water Resources Development Act that was passed by a staggering margin in the Senate recently, made its way to President Trump’s desk Tuesday afternoon and was signed into law-ensuring the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir will be built south of Lake Okeechobee, which will help, in part, with discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Now, the focus turns to the federal funding to construct the reservoir in a timely manner.

“The Everglades Reservoir project is now the law of the land – almost two decades late. Let’s get it built – in four years, not ten or fifteen. Florida’s estuaries, coastlines and America’s Everglades are imperiled, and the people of Florida cannot afford to wait,” said Erik Eikenberg, The Everglades Foundation CEO, in a prepared statement.

“If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can repair the Mosul Dam in Iraq in one year, this critical Florida reservoir should not take another decade,” he continued. “It now falls on Congress to appropriate the $200 million annually that is needed to construct the reservoir and move other critical Everglades restoration projects forward quickly. Be assured, the people of Florida will be watching.”

Congressman Francis Rooney, R-19, has been at the forefront of Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects, even personally bringing House leadership to Southwest Florida to get an eyewitness look at water quality issues that have harshly effected the region.

The new bill will also attempt to downsize the releases from Lake O until the reservoir is built.

“WRDA is critical to finally advancing the 68 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects that have been previously approved, including authorization of the EAA Reservoir, allowing for movement of water south from Lake Okeechobee,” Rooney said in a prepared statement. “Another important provision is expedited review of the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). This review is necessary so that LORS can be adjusted to prevent large-scale releases of water into the Caloosahatchee River from the lake. WRDA will allow us to build on the funding successes we have achieved over the last 21 months and provide needed resources to get our water quality fixed.”

A total of $610 million will be set aside to complete Herbert Hoover Dike repairs by 2022, rather than what could have turned out to be the end of the decade, said Rooney’s office.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D, who has been a vocal presence on the Senate floor for this bill, praised the Senate’s passing by a vote of 99-1, touting the accomplishments of he and fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R.

“I’m glad to see this project that Sen. Rubio and I have worked so hard to advance has passed the Senate,” Nelson said in a prepared statement after WRDA was passed earlier. “This reservoir is particularly important right now to help mitigate the toxic algae crisis that’s sweeping the state, but it’s also critical for our broader Everglades restoration effort.”

After President Trump signed the bill Tuesday afternoon, Nelson said on his Twitter page, “Lake Okeechobee reservoir, which will help reduce green algae, is now a federal law- based on language by Sen. Rubio and I.”

Implementation of the project will move more water from Lake Okeechobee through 6,500 acres of marsh, that will filter and clean the water, and store it in a 10,500-acre reservoir. It will be 23-feet deep and hold roughly 240,000 acre-feet of water.

The EAA reservoir will cost an estimated $1.3 billion, to be split 50-50 between the state and federal governments.

Florida Sugarcane Farmers has also come out in support of Trump’s signature on the legislation, releasing the following statement:

“With President Trump’s signature, the EAA reservoir can now continue to move forward,” said spokesperson Ardis Hammock, also the owner and operator of Frierson Farms Inc. in Moore Haven.

“This reservoir provides all of the storage and treatment required to meet 100 percent of the increased flows to the Everglades set forth in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). As an owner of a multi-generation sugarcane farm, I am grateful that the final configuration of the reservoir will use existing state-owned land and protect farmland and farming jobs in our Glades communities. We appreciate the Florida Legislature and Governor Scott for strongly supporting our private property rights.

“Now, we must shift our focus north of Lake Okeechobee, where more than 95 percent of the lake’s water and nutrients has originated over the last decade. By finally addressing the root cause of the lake’s high water and nutrient levels, we can begin designing the projects that will make a significant difference in reducing the damaging lake discharges to our coastal estuaries.”

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation has championed this movement on behalf of Southwest Florida for years.

“The passage of the 2018 WRDA Bill is a most significant step forward for Everglades Restoration,” said Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource policy director after the measure passed the Senate. “The project will establish the critical water infrastructure needed to begin dismantling the single purpose, 20th Century flood control project that has damaged and degraded five natural, vibrant treasures; three estuaries, the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Florida Bay, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.

“Now we must use the momentum from this approval to assure that federal funding is dedicated to match state funds and complete the project without delay. We encourage the elected leaders of Florida and Congress to set a goal of project completion in the next four years. Our waters our wildlife and our economy depend on it.”

A secondary part of the bill will see the ACOE implement a five-year harmful algal bloom technology development program to identify and develop improved strategies for prevention and management techniques, early detection and procedures to reduce harmful algal blooms.

Though this is being called a major victory for Floridians, residents cannot ease up on letting their voices be heard on the matter and must continue to break down barriers when it comes to water quality regulations, officials said.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas. We can suffer from amnesia at times,” said Eikenberg. “We can’t go back to out-of-sight, out-of-mind, we need to stay focused, with urgency at the forefront.”

If we want to have a healthy ecosystem, marine life and water that makes Florida such a travel destination, this reservoir needs to be built in a timely manner, he added

“The Everglades will function more naturally (once the reservoir is in place),” said Eikenberg. “It is best for Southwest Florida and the whole state. This is a tourism-based economy. The greatest threat to tourism is environmental disaster and toxic water events. Restoring the Everglades protects the economy going forward.”

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj