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In what could be a blow to advocates pushing a massive new Everglades reservoir, the Florida commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday backed a schedule that puts off southern storage for another four years.
That signaled a reversal in policy from the agency. Over the summer, the Obama administration had endorsed doing the job faster.
The statement from Col. Jason Kirk comes as state legislators battle over two proposed bills to help end the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee to protect the aging dike. Last year’s flushing spread dirty water across both coasts and left the Treasure Coast coated with foul-smelling algae blooms that closed beaches and damaged tourism.
A bill backed by state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, calls for a 60,000-acre reservoir south of the lake to store water and help revive marshes to the south. A second bill proposed by state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte, would provide the Corps with $1 billion to speed up dike repairs and raise water levels by more than two feet to help end the releases.
While Kirk, in a call with reporters, said it would be inappropriate to comment on proposed state laws, he emphasized the Corps’ commitment to working with the South Florida Water Management District, which opposes speeding up the reservoir.
Former civil works Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, in a June letter had opened the door to moving up work if a “willing partner” were found. But Darcy no longer oversees civil works, said Corps spokesman John Campbell.
Her letter was not well received at the water district. In a July letter to Darcy, district chairman Dan O’Keefe called the suggestion a “distraction” that could “prove harmful to ongoing restoration efforts.”
The two agencies are in the midst of planning a suite of projects north of the lake that would include smaller reservoirs and deep wells that could both store water and flush it deep in the boulder zone. Environmentalists worry the plan would waste water desperately needed to the south, where Florida Bay and marshes have wilted under decades of flood control.
What the Corps is recommitting to is our partnership with the South Florida Water Management District.
Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander
“What the Corps is recommitting to is our partnership with the South Florida Water Management District and not seeing value in seeking other partnerships or other local partners for the projects for which we already have agreements,” Kirk said.
Whether the lake can hold more water once repairs are complete still needs to be determined in a study process that can take three years, he said. If Congress were to double about $100 million received annually for dike projects, Kirk said repair work could be sped up three years. But that’s a big if: about a quarter of all the money spent to repair dams across the nation already goes to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
At the current rate, dike fixes would be finished in 2025. The study, which would look at both safety and potential environmental damage caused to wetlands and other habitat at the lake’s edges by raising water levels, would likely start in 2022.
Planning for the reservoir is not slated to begin until 2021, a year after a land purchasing option the state struck with U.S. Sugar expires. Negron, environmentalists and coastal residents, over fierce objections from sugar farmers and the district, want to buy the land now to avoid losing the option and speed up work. That would potentially have the reservoir in place once a suite of projects approved last year by Congress and aimed at moving more water south is complete.
Negron has proposed using Amendment 1 money approved by voters to buy environmental land to pay for the state’s half of the $2.4 billion reservoir.