SFWMD head says construction north of Lake O is ‘critical’ for lake’s health

lake okeechobee
'We've scheduled this out and it’s unconstrained from a cost standpoint.'

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Executive Director lauded a new surge in funding for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), calling the work “critical for the health of Lake Okeechobee.”

Drew Bartlett spoke before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday as lawmakers prepare for the 2022 Legislative Session. Earlier this year, the Legislature approved $50 million in annual funding for LOWRP, which includes money to move forward with construction on water storage facilities north of Lake Okeechobee.

“Northern storage is so critical,” Bartlett told lawmakers Wednesday. “It is important for the health of the lake. It is important for the health of the estuaries. And we are really excited to have the support from you and the Governor on making this happen.”

Bartlett said the funding package approved last Session — paired with money OK’d in previous years under Gov. Ron DeSantis — means money is no obstacle in getting LOWRP and other restoration projects completed, which will aim to improve water quality across southern Florida.

“We’ve seen so much support from the Governor and the Legislature for comprehensive Everglades restoration, including Lake Okeechobee restoration, that we’ve scheduled this out and it’s unconstrained from a cost standpoint,” Bartlett said.

While construction on water storage components can move forward, Bartlett did say wetlands restoration projects, which are part of LOWRP, have not been progressing as swiftly due to issues in acquiring the necessary land.

“In the plan, there’s 5,900 acres of restored wetlands. There’s two sites: Kissimmee River and Paradise Run,” Bartlett explained.

“Basically, we’ve been getting appropriations from the Legislature for the past three years to start the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project. Part of that is contacting the landowners. We own land in the Kissimmee River center — a good bit of it, not all of it. So we’re meeting with landowners in that one and the Paradise Run to talk to them about land swaps, potential acquisitions and so forth. But that’s the first step in wetland restoration. And so we’re engaged in those conversations now.”

Those conversations have not been fruitful as of yet, Bartlett said. “We haven’t executed any agreements yet on wetlands restoration, but we hope to in the near future.”

He did, however, argue the water storage components of the plan would be more impactful in terms of improving the health of Florida’s water supply.

“This is what’s really going to help Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the rest of the system,” Bartlett said. “You can drill a well and put water and hold it in the aquifer for later.”

That process has raised some environmental concerns. Moving water from above ground to underground storage systems could affect water flow in streams or other areas. Operators also need to ensure water being injected into the aquifer is clean enough to drink, a reality Bartlett acknowledged Wednesday.

Bartlett said the SFWMD and state officials are working to ensure that process is safe, as it requires a large investment in both cash and construction time.

“We need to absolutely do the science to make sure that we are investing in infrastructure that has long-term viability,” he explained. “And that is making sure the aquifer is protected, making sure we’re not doing anything to the aquifer when the water gets down there, and when we pull the water up — because we want to return it to the environment — making sure that all the critters and creatures that are receiving that water are protected. So there are lots of things to learn and know as we’re building these out.”

The SFWMD is utilizing peer review panels to make sure the process is environmentally safe and viable, according to Bartlett. He added those treatment centers could handle up to 75 million gallons per day.

“That’s the size of a large city, like West Palm Beach,” Bartlett said. “So that’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson was a leading proponent in LOWRP investment last Session. Facing term limits in 2022, Simpson is now pursuing a bid to be the state’s next Agriculture Commissioner.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


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