SFWMD: EAA Reservoir “is not going to happen”

The EAA reservoir “is not going to happen.” That’s what South Florida Water Management District WRAC member Newton Cook proclaimed at the June 8 SFWMD Governing Board meeting.

Depending on what meeting you attended this week, Senate Bill 10 and the reservoir are either the ambitious next step in a decades-old restoration process or the elephant in a room full of elephant hunters.

At Monday night’s community pop-up in Martin County, SB 10–now funded and signed into law by the governor–was recognized for the vital but massive undertaking that it was. Sen. Joe Negron acknowledged that a law is just the beginning, and the audience expressed concerns about the next steps for its implementation. 

“The only ones who get the short end of the stick are coastal communities.”

Reminiscent of last year’s 100+ days of discharges, one sharp question tackled shared adversity–or rather lack thereof. The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) attempts to balance several critical factors, none of which outrank needs of the sugar industry. Resistance to revisit this schedule remains, and crop production continues to be prioritized over the health and safety of those living close to toxic discharges.

But optimism prevails. Negron ballparked 3-4 years before the reservoir would be complete. An “accelerated, aggressive timetable” is expected to direct water management officials through a series of deadlines over the next couple of years. A vastly shrunken reservoir footprint ensured that the acquisition of additional, privately owned land through swaps, purchases and early lease terminations will be necessary in order to meet standards of treatment and conveyance. But if the project is built according to law, the dynamic reservoir will turn over more then 4 times its static capacity, meaning the water will continually flow into and out of it.

The June 8 SFWMD meeting spun a different tale.

“You think you can store this water?…We are not going to destroy the EAA agriculture, billions of dollars, and build another lake, basically. You’re trying to build another half million acre lake. It is not going to happen.”  -Newton Cook 

SFWMD officials openly opposed the reservoir. In addition to Cook vowing it wouldn’t happen (and citing wildly inaccurate figures), Vice Chairman Jim Moran, furious that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled deep injection wells out of all Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project plans, introduced a resolution for the district to go it alone and independently create a plan to use them. Moran was joined by most of his fellow board members in positioning the wells as an alternative to the reservoir. His resolution passed unanimously, and Moran says the district can get Florida taxpayers to cover the costs.

A single public comment reminded the board that the use of deep injection wells had been rejected because permanent disposal of the water 3,000 feet below the surface does nothing to actively restore the ecosystem, and because concerns remain about its ecological impact.

So will SFWMD obey legislators and stick to the schedule? General Counsel Brian Accardo felt compelled to publicly remind Moran that the district intended to follow the law and plan for the EEA reservoir as directed. He offered a glimmer of hope for transparency and integrity, pledging to publicize the district’s progress online. But the willingness of this agency to openly work against the public interest–and the law–is a glimpse into the challenge ahead of us to hold SFWMD accountable for the project.