Deep Dive: If the STAs were reserved for lake water, Lake O might be below 13 feet now

Flamingos congregate in STA 1. Photo courtesy of the South Florida Water Management District.

As billions of gallons of polluted water poured out of Lake Okeechobee and into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries and Lake Worth Lagoon, a familiar question kept being raised: Why isn’t that water going south?

And a familiar answer from the South Florida Water Management District was: We’re sending as much water south as we can.

The discharges that began Feb. 17 have dumped close to 60 billion gallons of lake water in the St. Lucie estuary alone. That’s more than double the almost 25 billion gallons (76,572 acre-feet) of water sent south from Lake Okeechobee since the beginning of the year, according to a SFWMD report given to

Has that 25 billion gallons helped alleviate the disastrous discharges? A bit. It corresponds to taking slightly less than 2 inches of depth off Lake O.

The SFWMD said rainfall within the Everglades Agricultural Area basin “has limited the ability to move water south from Lake Okeechobee to the southern Everglades.”

According to the SFWMD, from May 1, 2023, through March 21 of this year – a period including the 2023 rainy season and the beginning of the current dry season – about 538.3 billion gallons (1.65 million acre feet) of water was sent to the stormwater treatment areas south of the lake for cleansing en route to the Everglades.

At a Feb. 22 meeting of the Rivers Coalition in Stuart, SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett indicated that as much as 90% of the water in the STAs is from EAA farmland.

Actually, about 97.5% of that water from the past year (nearly 523 billion gallons or 1.61 million acre feet), was “runoff” from the EAA basin, according to a SFWMD graphic:

It can (and has) been done

It hasn’t always been that bad. SFWMD data shows that in 2019 — the year after the 2018 algae crises in the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee estuaries —nearly a third of the water sent to the STAs came from the lake. In 2015, two years after the horrific 2013 algae crisis, 43% of water into the STAs came from the lake.

By contrast, in both 2021 and 2022 the figure was under 11%.

Would sending lake water instead of EAA runoff to the STAs help alleviate the disastrous discharges?

If all the water the district moved south this past year had come from Lake O, the lake would be about 3 and a half feet lower. So, as of April 1, the lake elevation would have been about 12 feet 8 inches instead of about 15 feet 2 inches.

That would put Lake O within spitting distance of the 12 feet 6 inches elevation the Corps wants the lake to be at the beginning of the summer rainy season – about a month from now.

But sending only Lake O water to the STAs isn’t going to happen because cleaning runoff from the EAA is deemed the primary purpose of the STAs in the first place.

The Everglades Forever Act of 1994 authorized the construction of six STAs to clean water moving south to the Everglades. The legislation was the result of a lawsuit filed by the federal government against Florida claiming the state was responsible for cleaning up water filled with fertilizer pollutants (nitrogen and phosphorus) coming off the EAA farmland that was wreaking environmental havoc on Everglades National Park.

Unfortunately, water from Lake Okeechobee that wreaks environmental havoc on the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries – and economic and health havoc on the surrounding communities – wasn’t prioritized in the agreement reached by the federal and state governments to resolve the lawsuit.

STA 3/4 is shown in this photo from 2017. Photo courtesy of the South Florida Water Management District

STAs work

There’s no doubt the STAs – 62,000 acres of constructed wetlands filled with plants that remove excess nutrients in the water – work. Since coming online, the 62,000 acres of STAs built by the district have treated about 8.7 trillion gallons (26.7 million acre-feet) of water and retained over 3,400 metric tons of phosphorus, a 77.4% reduction in the phosphorus entering the Everglades.

The state spent $1.2 billion of taxpayer money to build the STAs. (Five are in use and the sixth will be part of the EAA Reservoir now under construction.) That’s a pretty strong argument for using the STAs for more than cleaning runoff from sugarcane fields in the EAA.

The Everglades Forever Act does require EAA farmers to help pay for Everglades restoration – including operation and maintenance of the STAs – in the form of an agriculture privilege tax

Curiously, although restoration costs continue to climb every year, the privilege tax decreases over time: $25 through 2026, $20 per acre from 2027 through 2029, $15 per acre for 2030-35 and $10 an acre after that.

Last year, the tax on the approximately 440,00 acres cultivated in the EAA raised about $10.5 million. That’s slightly less than half the $22 million a year the SFWMD spends to operate and maintain the STAs.

So break it down: Taxpayers on the whole paid to construct the STAs. The EAA producers pay less than half of what it costs to operate them Florida taxpayers on the whole pay the rest.

Fair deal?

In the spirit of generosity and shared adversity, it could be said that the sugar industry in the EAA has, at most, a claim to about half the space in the STAs.

Going back to the SFWMD data from May 1, 2023, through March 21, then: Splitting the STA flow 50-50 between Lake O and the EAA would drop the lake elevation slightly over 21 inches – making the lake elevation on April 1 about 13 feet 5 inches.

In coming years, as the sugar industry pays for less and less of the operation and maintenance, it only makes sense that lake water gets more and more space in the STAs. The sugar industry would fight tooth and nail, of course; but how can the industry justify its continued stranglehold on STA capacity when its share of the maintenance and operation of the man-made marshes continues to decrease?

Especially as harmful discharges from Lake O continue to inflict harm on the northern estuaries, how can we justify continuing to give Big Sugar more for less?