VoteWater Deep Dive: This project could clean water going into Lake O, but local residents oppose it. Now what?

Work on a large stormwater treatment area to cut the flow of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee has been put on hold while the South Florida Water Management District reviews concerns that the project could cause flooding and airplane crashes.

The district is right to address residents’ worries; but officials shouldn’t take too long to allay any fears – the project is too important to Lake O and to everyone who lives downstream of the lake.

And the concerns, unlike the proposed STA, don’t hold much water.

Why build it north of the lake?

The 3,400-acre Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area is to be built on the Kissimmee River about three miles upstream from Lake Okeechobee. It’s being designed to hold about 1.2 billion gallons of water, capturing and cleaning water from the river and adjacent watersheds before it flows into the lake.

The project is desperately needed and ideally situated for this task.

According to state guidelines, water entering Lake O, primarily from the Kissimmee, is supposed to contain no more than 140 tons of phosphorus (a primary component of fertilizer that feeds toxic blue-green algal blooms) per year.

That goal has been reached exactly six times since 1974, and the phosphorus load is usually more than twice the recommended max. In Water Year 2023 (May 1, 2022, to April 30 this year), for example, the phosphorus flow totaled 400 tons.

The district estimates the proposed STA will be able to remove about 15.4 tons of phosphorus from water entering Lake Okeechobee each year.

The project will be able to put a significant dent in Lake O pollution because it will collect water from some of the most-polluting areas north of the lake, including:

  • S-154C Basin, which in Water Year 2021 contained phosphorus in concentrations 19.4 times over the state-imposed limit.
  • S-191 Basin, which contained phosphorus levels 13.7 times over the limit.
  • S-154 Basin, which contained phosphorus 10.1 times over the limit.

The project sits on the western edge of the Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough subwatershed, which contained phosphorus 9.4 times over the limit.

Ecosystem Investment Partners, the firm contracted by the district to oversee the project, claims the STA can be designed, built, tested and turned over to the district for operation by May 2027.

The district “will not do any project that will increase flood risk or create any hazard to Okeechobee citizens,” district Executive Director Drew Bartlett said at the district’s Oct. 12 board meeting.

By that measure, the Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area should be a full speed ahead.

But what about flooding?

According to an Ecosystems Investment Partners website on the project, the STA won’t cause flooding and could help alleviate it.

The STA will have a maximum depth of 2 feet, EIP states, and surrounding levees that are 3 to 5 feet higher than that. Also, a perimeter canal will collect any runoff and seepage; and backup outflows will automatically remove water if levels in the STA get too high.

The project will be “integrated with the existing regional flood protection system,” EIP states. 

Besides, the company states, “Wetlands ultimately increase community resilience and could potentially reduce flood risk in the area.”

In layman’s terms, that means would-be flood water gets pumped into the 3,400-acre STA and, if that water gets too high, it would be discharged into the river.

Questions about flooding and seepage “come up when almost all major water resource projects are planned,” said Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer who designed and tested STAs for the South Florida Water Management District, “and the engineering and permitting phases will ensure they are not a problem.”

Birds and the airports

Several Okeechobee County private pilots have suggested the STA will attract birds, posing a threat to planes taking off and landing near the project. 

And in fact, a public airport and several private airstrips are close to the project:

  • Okeechobee Regional Airport, less than five miles away to the northeast
  • Sunset Strip Airpark, immediately to the east
  • River Oak Airport, immediately to the west

“The end of my runway is where that project is going to be,” Jim Reynolds, a pilot and Okeechobee resident, told the South Florida Water Management District board in October.

A Wood Stork and Great Egret make use of a Martin County wetland. Photo by Dave Preston.

Reynolds said the STA will attract waterfowl, which is “an environmentalist’s dream but a pilot’s worst nightmare.”

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends airports be at least five miles from areas that attract wildlife to avoid airplane collisions with birds.

How much of a danger is there? A Feb. 8, 2023, letter from the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority to the water management district notes that bird strikes with airplanes worldwide accounted for 301 deaths in 33 years. In the United States, 41 people were killed in 32 years, slightly more than one death nationwide per year.

“Having the FAA wanting no birds within … five miles of the runway seems a bit too cautious compared with the apparent size of the threat,” said Paul Gray, Everglades science coordinator for Audubon Florida.

As for the private airstrips, Gray asked rhetorically, “If someone builds a private airport, we need to eliminate all bird habitat?  Fill in all wetlands within (five) miles?  This seems overboard to me.”

It’s not an “If you build it, they will come” situation. The birds are already at the site. In his remarks to the SFWMD board, Reynolds, the Okeechobee pilot, noted that on a recent takeoff, he had to dodge a couple of birds.

“We don’t anticipate the project being a nuisance attraction due to the abundance of habitat available to birds across Okeechobee County,” Caitlin Newcamp, Audubon Florida’s Everglades policy associate, told the SFWMD board.

“I think birds are here and need to be lived with,” Gray said.

What’s here and can’t be lived with: polluted water flowing into Lake Okeechobee causing toxic algae blooms.

The stakes are high

So here we run into the perpetual problem with Everglades restoration: What happens when you have a good project, in a spot that’s perfect from a scientific/nutrient removal standpoint — but the nearby residents don’t want it?

Should local concerns derail a project that promises to deliver benefits to an entire region, even the whole of South Florida?

Would compromise on this issue result in water going into Lake O that isn’t as clean as it might otherwise have been? And at this point, with water quality in the lake such a crucial issue — can we afford to settle for less?

We hope local residents, government officials, the water management district and Ecosystem Investment Partners can hammer out some type of agreement that delivers the most benefits with the fewest impacts. But this project should go forward. Time grows short in our quest to fix south Florida’s water problems, and the longer we wait the greater the chance that once “solutions” finally arrive — it’ll be too late.