U.S. Rep. Brian Mast is pushing the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to delay a restoration project north of Lake Okeechobee in favor of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir Project.
Mast is voicing concern regarding the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project. That restoration is aimed at increasing water storage north of the lake and reducing discharges that can spread toxic blue-green algae.
But Mast — whose district covers areas east of Lake O — wants that project put on the back burner for now.
“While I am a strong supporter of additional storage capacity north of Lake Okeechobee, I am concerned that authorizing this project now could jeopardize timely completion of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir Project, which provides far greater benefits to reduce harmful discharges and restore the Everglades,” Mast wrote in a letter to SFWMD Drew Bartlett.
The process to plan for construction of the EAA reservoir has begun, and was expedited by the termination of a lease previously held by the Florida Crystals Corporation.
That lease covered lands slated to be used for the reservoir. But Mast argues the project isn’t advancing fast enough.
That position is being challenged by Nyla Pipes, director of the One Florida Foundation. Pipes spoke out against the request at Thursday’s SFWMD meeting and talked to Florida Politics about her position.
“This is the first time — in the just shy of a decade that I’ve been involved in this conversation — that I’ve ever seen somebody say, ‘Don’t approve an Everglades Restoration Project,'” Pipes said.
“We have an integrated delivery schedule which is supposed to help us prioritize how all these projects work together. And it’s general knowledge that these projects all support each other.”
Pipes praised the EAA Reservoir and said she’s looking forward to its completion. “Any and all storage that we create within the system is good.”
But she argued that the watershed project north of the lake will do more to help reduce discharges — a focus of Mast’s during his time in Congress — than the EAA project.
“Basically, what [the EAA Reservoir] is meant to do is make sure that there is water to meter out into the agricultural areas, the urban areas and of course the natural systems south of the lake so that we don’t have to continue to use to use Lake Okeechobee as a reservoir,” Pipes said.
“So it’s an important project. But it is not primarily designed, nor has it ever been primarily designed, to stop discharges.”
While it may not be the primary use of the EAA Reservoir, the project will help reduce the need for discharges to an extent by helping store water that could otherwise be kept in Lake O. The lower the lake — even to a small extent — the less of a need to discharge to prevent dangerously high lake levels.
The EAA Reservoir will also aim to help stop the spread of blue-green algae from the lake by preventing that water from reaching other waterways.
Last Session, the state allocated $50 million to help with the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project. Advocates see the project as vital due to the amount of water entering the lake from that area.
“In fact, 95% of the water that’s coming into the lake is coming from the north,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner back in April.
“The water quality and the water quantity are killing the lake.”
Pipes echoed those concerns.
“If you don’t store [water] and treat it before it gets to the lake, then you’re left dealing with it on the southern end.”
Pipes’ group was formed in in 2014, and is based in St. Lucie County — an area covered by Mast’s district. She said she wants to push the Congressman to support the entirety of the Everglades restoration plan, rather than pick and choose.
“We have to do them all. Trying to pick one and say, ‘Absolutely don’t work on another because we’re concerned about money,’ it’s just never been the way that Everglades restoration works. And we will never get where we need to be if we begin to work that way.”