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Money and time: Water quality projects get both

By Staff | Jun 12, 2019

Two projects that aim to improve Florida’s water quality and Everglades restoration recently got a boost.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $60 million grant on June 3 to the National Park Service to restore the natural flow of water beneath Tamiami Trail, while the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project submitted permits on June 4 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate the project by 18 months.

The EAA reservoir is one of many vital Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects that will clean water before it is sent south to the Everglades.

“This is great. We are moving forward on this reservoir project at full speed under the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis because it is a crucial component of the overall plan to restoring America’s Everglades,” South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Drew Bartlett said in a statement. “The permit applications are the latest major milestone that will get this project built and its benefits realized in the foreseeable future.”

The SFWMD submitted permits to the ACOE and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to allow the clearing of a 700-foot-wide strip of land, encompassing nearly 690 acres at the prospective site.

This is necessary to build a canal and perimeter levee for a stormwater treatment area. The canal will help diverted water from Lake Okeechobee make its way into a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir and stormwater treatment area, where it will be cleaned before being sent south to the Everglades.

“The residents of South Florida need and deserve the environmental benefits of this project. We are here to deliver this project as soon as possible,” Bartlett added. “Every component of the EAA Reservoir Project is being expedited to restore and protect our natural water resources, and today’s announcement is good news for Floridians.”

Currently, that land is leased to Florida Crystals Corporation by the SWFMD for agricultural use. Despite that fact, the SWFMD has revived letters from Florida Crystals that the district will have access to the land for restoration work.

“Florida Crystals is fully committed to ensuring the same timely and cooperative transition of the 16,158 acres of leased land for the EAA reservoir as was achieved with the A-1 FEB and the STA-1W expansion,” read a letter penned to Bartlett upon his appointment from Florida Crystals Chief Executive Office Alfonso Fanjul and President J. Pepe Fanjul on April 10. “Furthermore, to be clear, as we have communicated to the current administration as well as to the prior administration, you have our commitment that, if construction of the reservoir is accelerated, we will transition land covered by this lease as needed by the SFWMD for construction of the EAA reservoir project.”

Officials with SWFMD said they fully expect to have the permits approved in a month at most, so that work can begin as soon as possible on the reservoir. Officials also said they expect to complete the preparation work for the levee and canal by the end of the year, allowing crews to start excavating the intake canal next year.

The reservoir is expected to send about 370,000 addition acre-feet of clean water to the southern Everglades annually, and according to the SWFMD, reduce the number of discharges from the lake.

“Every day sooner that the EAA can be built is a victory for water quality in Southwest Florida,” District 19 Congressman Francis Rooney said. “It is critical that we continue to secure the necessary funding for this and the many other CERP projects that have been authorized. I am working to ensure that the $200 million for Everglades projects that we requested and President Trump included in his budget, advances through the appropriations process in Congress. Combined with the nearly $1.1 billion we secured over the last two years, we are finally making progress on fixing our water.”

“Today’s announcement is a step forward toward completing the long-overdue Everglades Reservoir. The new leadership of the South Florida Water Management District should be congratulated for making this project a priority,” Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of The Everglades Foundation, said on June 5. “This is a necessary initial component of the larger project that is critical to our waterways and must be implemented expeditiously. Only by the reservoir becoming fully operational can we address our continuing water challenges, and Florida cannot afford to wait.”

Eikenberg also praised the $60 million grant that will restore the natural flow of water beneath Tamiami Trail.

“The water crisis facing the Everglades is really two-fold,” Eikenberg explained. “At the northern end of the Everglades, excess water flowing into Lake Okeechobee has forced massive discharges of algae-causing water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers. Meanwhile, in the southern Everglades, the lack of fresh water impacts wildlife and destroys critical habitat. In Florida Bay, it is ruining the delicate saltwater balance, killing seagrass habitat needed to support world-class recreational fishing in the Florida Keys.”

The state will modify a 6.5-mile stretch of Tamiami Trail, called the “Next Step Phase II” project, that Eikenberg said “will open up the bottleneck, allowing the maximum amount of clean water into Everglades National Park.”

Total funding of the project is $100 million, added to the $40 million included in the budget just passed by the Legislature, will be used to elevate the remaining road and install six sets of massive concrete culverts between the new bridges.

“This $100 million project is an essential and significant step in the restoration of America’s Everglades and returning the natural flow of fresh water to Everglades Natural Park,” Eikenberg wrote in an April 29 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Tamiami Trail has been a blockade of sorts since 1928, resulting in overly dry conditions that led to fire in the Everglades and vast seagrass die-offs in Florida Bay.

Two elevated bridges have already been constructed, and have improved conditions, but officials say this is the last piece of the puzzle to ensure restoration of fresh water flows sought out in the CERP. Rooney also sent a letter to Chao in support of the grant application and the Phase II project.

“The Everglades ecosystem is vital to Florida’s economy and has a $2 trillion impact on the state,” he stated. “When this project is completed, water will be able to flow south into the southern Everglades and Florida bay, where it is desperately needed. Currently, Tamiami Trail acts as a barrier and heightens the risk of flooding to nearby areas and prevents. It is vital that South Florida’s ecosystem is restored to its natural state, and that starts with water flow.”