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The TaxWatch Research Blog is a forum where our research staff can address topics and issues in a short format. Keep an eye on this space during Legislative Session for frequent posts making sense of the activity at the Capitol. 

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Lake Okeechobee Isn't The Whole Story

The inclusion of money in the state budget to expedite the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is a big win for Senate President Joe Negron and Florida taxpayers.  When completed, the reservoir and conveyance structures will reduce the high-volume freshwater discharges from the lake to the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries, restore the hydrological connection to the Everglades, and provide additional water supply to participating water supply utilities in South Florida. The state budget also includes money to expedite needed repairs of the Herbert Hoover Dike which surrounds the lake, a priority of Governor Scott.

But reducing the high-volume discharge of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee doesn’t solve the whole problem. Much of the contamination of the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries can be traced to fresh water discharges from local basins and non-point pollution sources, such as local stormwater runoff, fertilizers and pesticides, and leaking septic tanks. These fresh water discharges and contaminants flow into area canals and then into the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries annually, not periodically as is the case with Lake Okeechobee discharges and make up more than two-thirds of the discharges to these sensitive estuarine water bodies.

One solution is to collect and treat runoff north and east of Lake Okeechobee and then channel the treated water north where much of this water would have gone naturally but for man-made drainage and transportation improvements via the St. Johns River to Central Florida where there is a well-documented need for fresh water. Located in northern Okeechobee and southern Indian River counties, the proposed 7,800-acre Grove Land Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area (GLRSTA) project will, when constructed, do just that.

Excess stormwater runoff from the C-23, C-24, and C-25 basins will be channeled into the Grove Land Reservoir through canals owned by the South Florida Water Management District. Water flow from the C-52 basin owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District may also be utilized to route water from the GLRSTA.

The Reservoir will provide 75,000 acre-feet of water storage. The excess stormwater will then enter the 1,800-acre stormwater treatment area located to the north, where phosphorous and nitrogen concentrations will be reduced. Water managers can then decide whether to discharge the treated stormwater to the north into the St. Johns River via canals owned by the St. Johns Water Management District, or to the south into canals owned by the South Florida Water Management District. An additional benefit of the project is the reestablishment of the hydraulic connection between the two water management districts.

When constructed, the GLRSTA will mitigate environmental harm to the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries by diverting and storing more than 150,000 acre-feet to wet season stormwater flow annually. The GLRSTA is also projected to provide an average of 136 million gallons per day for surface water augmentation and groundwater recharge.

Although currently not part of the Indian River Lagoon/Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (IRL/CERP), the GLRSTA could provide benefits similar to those IRL/CERP projects that have been delayed or for which funding has not been appropriated. The costs for CERP projects are shared 50-50 by the federal government and state and local governments. Projects like the C-25 Reservoir and STA still have not been designed or located and are unfunded; however, by involving private funding (e.g., public-private partnerships), the GLRSTA could be implemented faster and take the place of the planned C-25 Reservoir and STA. It could also supplement the other IRL/CERP  reservoirs and STAs, all of which were supposed to have been constructed and operational decades ago.  It also supplements much needed fresh water flow to the St. Johns River and Central Florida.

The quality of water in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries is critical to the region’s economic vitality. Solutions are expensive and will take considerable time to implement. The longer we wait, the more expensive the solutions are likely to be, and there is a very real possibility that we may wait too late to save these vital estuaries. For these reasons, it is imperative that policymakers consider every engineering and funding option, including the GLRSTA, to address problems caused by local discharges. The water quality problems in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River estuaries will not be solved by solely focusing on discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

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