Panelists take the stage at the second Save our Water Summit hosted by the News-Press. SC photo by Barbara Linstrom
Panelists take the stage at the second Save our Water Summit hosted by the News-Press. SC photo by Barbara Linstrom

Advocacy groups reported great strides in getting a plan through the state to the federal level that is intended to drastically reduce harmful discharges into South Florida estuaries. Water managers shared gradual momentum on massive storage and treatment plans. Scientists gave promising data for improving water quality, with a caveat.

Healthy ecosystems that are resilient can bounce back and in a pretty quick amount of time,” said Greg Tolley, chair of the marine science and ecological studies department at FGCU. “But, If we get the water wrong, the whole system could crash.”

Key stakeholders took the stage at the Coconut Point Hyatt Regency Friday morning to share progress reports on getting the water right at the second Save Our Water Summit hosted by the News-Press. The first summit was in October 2016.

Two years ago, we were under a state of emergency due to the water being released from Lake Okeechobee,” said Erik Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation. “Now, we have a plan. We know what needs to occur and we’re now seeing the political will to do it. We’re making tremendous progress and I encourage you to stay engaged on the issue.”

Plans for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir to store and treat water south of Lake Okeechobee are now moving through the federal review, authorization and appropriation process. If the feds match the $200 million a year that the state of Florida has already committed, the reservoir is expected to be completed within about seven years.

We’re waiting on the review by the Army Corps of Engineers. Hopefully, we’ll get a favorable response and it will go to Congress for authorization. After authorization that will make it eligible for congressional appropriations to move forward with the construction of that project,” said Phil Flood, regional representative on the South Florida Water Management District.

Advocates noted that it’s been almost two decades since the original $8 billion Everglades restoration plan was approved at the federal level, but that starts and stops of the requisite $400 million per year in funding split between the state and federal governments have held up progress.

In 2000, when President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Everglades Plan to fix the system, the second project that he signed in that legislation was a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, so here we are 17-18 years later waiting for this particular project,” said Eikenberg.

As time passes, the population grows.

We have a need for a robust system that allows our economy to flourish and allows our ecosystems to thrive and what’s more, is that it’s an even a greater need than it was 20 years ago. The system was originally designed to support 2-3 million people; we’re supporting over 8 million with the same system,” said Jennifer Reynolds, South Florida’s deputy district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In presenting the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s third Estuaries Report Card, Marisa Cardozzo directly addressed the state of water quality since the last summit.

Unfortunately, many of the water bodies in our area are not meeting their standards and there are a number where we don’t have enough data to know one way or the other,” said Cardozzo, policy specialist for the conservancy.

In the 2017 report, the Caloosahatchee River scored a D- in both water quality and wildlife habitat as it did on the 2011 report card. In 2005, it scored a C for water quality and a C- for wildlife habitat.

The Calooshatchee has the highest profile probably due to the many problems it faces,” she said. “It experiences extreme swings between too much fresh water flow during the rainy season and too little fresh water flow during the dry season or during droughts.”

Underscoring that reality, this summit came at a time when a lack of fresh water releases in a drought year has salinities running at toxic levels. One potential solution, the C-43 Reservoir, is currently under construction outside of Labelle. Three of four construction contracts have been awarded on the $75 million project.

This one is designed exclusively to improve health of the estuary. The idea is during the rainy season when we have too much water running into the estuary and it’s overwhelmed with fresh water upsetting the salinity and damaging the estuary, we’d pump water out of the Caloosahatchee River and store it in the reservoir for times like right now in the dry season when we don’t have enough fresh water to keep the estuary healthy,” said Flood, of the SFWMD’s progress.

Like many of the projects for Everglades restoration, it’s a massive and costly project that is taking several years to complete.

The reservoir has been under construction the last couple years. It’s a massive thing -- it’s 10,500 acres – six miles east and west, three miles north and south – it’s stunning when you see the size of it,” he said. “The [Florida] legislature has been continuing to fund us and we need to continue to ask for their support to keep this project moving along here. But, we’re looking to having this completed in 2022.”

In response to a call for speedier solutions, water managers point to the complexities of the system-wide restoration.

It takes all of us appreciating how the dynamic storage works, how the operations work and the needs of the users across the system. This is not an easy task. If it were easy it would already be done,” said Reynolds to explain the Corps’ process. “Storing water is important east, west, north and south of the lake.”

In the meantime, advocates urge the public to push for action in D.C. where legislators from across the U.S. expressed support during an Everglades Summit two weeks ago.

They were committed to ensuring not only that this reservoir gets authorized but that the federal funding is increased so that these projects can be built and they can built within our lifetime. That’s the sense of urgency that must continue,” said Eikenberg.

Daniel Andrews, executive director for Captains for Clean Water, urged grassroots action as well.

We have to see this the whole way through until there’s water flowing into Florida Bay,” he said. “We need to engage more stakeholders, even outside of Southwest Florida, we need everybody in the country to support it.”