How SFWMD and the Army Corps Got One Right

By Peter Girard

No one has been a louder critic of SFWMD than Bullsugar. But the district and the Army Corps of Engineers have a legitimate success with the Kissimmee River project.

By focusing on returning the river to its historic condition, letting nature work the way it used to, and avoiding high-risk, over-engineered approaches, they’re on track to deliver positive results on a project that we all agree is important. We should apply the lessons of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project to all remaining CERP projects.

 The Kissimmee River is already filtering water naturally, the way it used to

Start with planning northern and southern storage, now that the EAA reservoir is approved. Instead of using the power of natural systems, there’s discussion of relying heavily on costly aquifer storage recovery (ASR) wells. That’s not the approach that made the Kissimmee a success. In addition to their questionable viability, ASR wells pump too slowly to respond to sudden surges from storms, so they add complexity without solving the system’s biggest problem–toxic discharges. And the forces of nature routinely crush over-complicated solutions.

The Corps took a step in the right direction this week by ruling out deep injection wells (DIW) as an option to reduce discharges. In addition to posing unexplored threats by dumping pollution underground, wasting precious freshwater in the process, DIW represents yet another expensive, complex, technology-dependent alternative to simpler, more natural solution.

As Lou Toth told Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp, explaining why the Kissimmee project worked better than others, “You get out of Mother Nature’s way, and she comes back.” 

What Coming Back Looks Like

When the Kissimmee was channelized in the 1960s, a shallow, meandering river that filtered water as it snaked 100 miles southward was replaced by a deep, high-speed, high-volume conduit of untreated wastewater blasting down from a developed corridor. The natural system never had a chance.

Today, less than three years from the project’s completion date, fish and birds are already coming back to the river. When the work is done, flows through the system into Lake Okeechobee will travel farther, take longer, and filter naturally. That’s exactly the way water once flowed onward from there, feeding the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Following the same K.I.S.S. approach to store, treat, and send water south makes sense. Even if ASR and deep injection wells didn’t pose serious pollution threats–and many experts believe the risk is unacceptable–a naturally driven solution would still be cheaper to build, easier to maintain, and less prone to failure. SFWMD and the Corps could log another success, a rare event in a dismal 30-year slog toward Everglades restoration.

If they can deliver another Kissimmee-like success story, Florida’s taxpayers, residents, and wildlife will be grateful.