Deep Dive: If we build a reservoir north of Lake O, who gets the water?

Everyone agrees that building a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee is a good thing, a rarity among projects proposed for the greater Everglades plumbing system.

More true to form is the fact that not everyone agrees on what ought to be done with the reservoir’s water.

The stated purpose of the reservoir, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is to “improve flexibility in the timing and distribution of water to the lake, to the Northern Estuaries, and throughout the (Lake Okeechobee watershed). Water can be stored during wet periods to reduce high lake stages and later be released into the lake to reduce the impacts of low stages during dry times.”

The Corps looked at four alternative sites and configurations for the reservoir and determined one covering about 12,800 acres along the north side of the C-41A Canal would be the most cost-effective. (The site is slightly smaller than other alternatives considered by the Corps because it removes a 484-acre environmentally sensitive area. That means the reservoir will have to be slightly deeper — about 18 feet deep — than the other alternatives would have been.)

Here’s where things get contentious.

Three interests — the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the environment and agriculture — are laying claim to that water.

What’s the game plan for the reservoir?

The Army Corps released a final environmental impact statement for the reservoir in January, but despite being over 960 pages long, the document is short on information about how the project will be operated.

For instance, the Corps doesn’t say when water will be let out of the reservoir, which would go a long way in determining who gets it and for what purpose.

If the Corps plans to empty the reservoir pretty much as soon as it can after the end of the rainy season, that would make space available for the next rainy season to reduce flood risk. But the move wouldn’t leave much water for use late in the dry season.

If the Corps opts to hold water in the reservoir until late in the dry season or until a drought, then there would be much more water supply benefit; but there wouldn’t be much capacity for incoming water from unexpected dry-season rain or an early wet season.

The answer may lie in the words of those noted hydrologists, the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but … you get what you need.”

The Seminole have a legitimate request to get what they need, as they have a compact with the state on water allocation to the Brighton Reservation on the north side of Lake O.

In a letter to the Corps (page 365 of the Environmental Impact Statement) the Seminole note that “the majority of the water (currently) supplied to the Tribe by Lake Okeechobee is expected to be reduced and replaced with increased supplies from the reservoir.”

So it seems logical that Native Americans, who have a long history of getting the short end of the stick when it comes to agreements with the federal government, should have first dibs on water from the reservoir.

But what about the environment?

The environment certainly has a legitimate and obvious need when it comes to both holding water in the reservoir and letting it out. Holding water in the reservoir during the rainy season would:

  • Protect the Lake O environment. The reservoir will help keep the lake within the so-called “ecologically preferred seasonal stage envelope” of 11 and a half feet to 15 and a half feet, which helps keep
  • Keep the lake’s marsh and open-water habitats healthy. Deep water prevents light from reaching underwater plants (aka submerged aquatic vegetation) that need it for photosynthesis.
  • Benefit the northern estuaries’ environment. The reservoir would hold about 65.2 billion gallons of water, which corresponds to slightly more than 5 inches of depth on Lake O. It may not sound like a lot, but keeping 5 inches of water off the lake during the rainy season can often keep the Army Corps of Engineers from getting nervous that the depth threatens the safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike, and that can keep the Corps from sending damaging discharges of dirty lake water to the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.

Lake O discharges in 2013 and 2018, for example, caused massive blue-green algal blooms on the St. Lucie River estuary that wreaked havoc on the estuarine environment, the area’s water-based economy, and the health of people (and animals) that came in contact with the toxic blooms.

Another round of Lake O discharges began Feb. 17; and although the full extent of the damage done won’t be known until the spigot is turned off, the billions of gallons of water have already dropped salinity in the St. Lucie River estuary, threatening oyster and seagrass beds.

Holding water in the reservoir during the rainy season would also benefit the greater Everglades environment. A combination of rainfall and water drained off the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee flooded the massive marshes north of Everglades National Park, drowning wildlife that couldn’t find dry land on what little was left of the area’s tree islands. 

On the flip side, sending more water south during the dry season would help protect the greater Everglades from becoming a parched tinderbox for wildfires.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states in its letter (page 343 in the Environmental Impact Statement) to the Corps, the reservoir’s desired benefits include “improving Lake Okeechobee ecology, improving the estuarine environment, and contributing to hydrological improvements in the historical Everglades.”

Audubon Florida agreed in its letter to the Corps supporting the project (Page 340 in the Environmental Impact Statement) that “improving the quantity, quality and timing of water flowing into Lake Okeechobee from its watershed is key in protecting Lake Okeechobee, reducing harmful discharges to our estuaries to the east and west, and allowing clean water flows to be sent south rehydrating Everglades National Park and Florida Bay,”

In their comments to the Corps, the Friends of the Everglades (page 356 of the Environmental Impact Statement) expressed concern that flows of reservoir water to the Everglades would occur primarily during the wet season, which wouldn’t help (and could cause environmental damage to) the Everglades, while there would be little flow to the Everglades during dry periods, when the water is needed.

But Big Sugar wants the water (surprise!)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, owners of the roughly 400,000 acres of sugarcane south of Lake O also want the reservoir’s water.

In its comments on the proposed reservoir (page 347 of the Environmental Impact Statement), Florida Crystals, for example, said the Army Corps in recent years has “reduced the amount of water stored in Lake Okeechobee, which increases the risk of water supply shortfalls during droughts. For that reason, Florida Crystals supports efforts to increase overall storage capacity… so that the amount of water available to all users is increased.”

Big Sugar may want more water, but do they need it?

Not really.

In fact, the system has been rigged over the past dozens of years so that the sugarcane fields get all the water they need and get drained of all the water they don’t need. Come drought or come flood, the sugar fields keep recording record harvests.

Corporate sugar farmers have already tried to lay claim to water that will be stored in the EAA Reservoir being built south of Lake O, a project that (like the proposed reservoir north of the lake) is supposed to help prevent damaging lake water discharges in the wet season and keep the Everglades hydrated in the dry season.

What’s more, taxpayers foot the bill for cleaning up the water coming off the sugarcane fields through a system of man-made marshes known as stormwater treatment areas, or STAs.

The Seminole Tribe and the environment are asking for only what they need. Big Sugar is asking, as usual, for what they want.

And they always seem to want more.

So we should watch out for the coming “water grab” — and insist the water be reserved for legitimate needs rather than a “just in case” supply designed to protect Big Sugar’s bottom line.