“….a travesty against nature that could never be reversed,” those words regarding Florida’s early history of land development without due consideration for all environmental effects are from Patrick Smith’s 1996 historical novel, A Land Remembered.
The reversal and improvement of this complex and limited water management system that is manifesting itself in the form of extensive algal blooms in both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries this year is the monumental undertaking in which your Army Corps of Engineers, partnered closely with the Department of Interior and the State of Florida is engaged. Through multiple communications venues, including several public meetings we’ve hosted in the past few weeks, the Corps team and I have heard the emphatic concerns regarding this summer’s water management challenges.
I assure you that we are leveraging the available flexibility within a limited system to manage water levels throughout hurricane season. We are also moving full-steam ahead on multiple Everglades restoration projects and the $1.8 billion Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation, now-fully-funded by the Administration, which will enable a more flexible water management system that engineers, scientists and leaders at the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District will operate in the future.
Key to our efforts is the partnership we have with all involved to restore the Everglades and improve flows in the Central & Southern Florida Project. Over the past 70 years, this project has been instrumental in managing flood risk and enabling the south Florida economy to flourish to the point that millions of people now call the region home. However, the “travesty” that Patrick Smith describes means water is often unavailable for environmental benefits, that the flows include too many nutrients, and water is wasted to tide, then completely unavailable during the dry season.
Projects such as the C-44 and C-43 reservoirs, both currently under construction, are important pieces of the solution. North of the lake, we continue to modify a draft report on the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project. Awaiting action by Congress is the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir south of the lake. Many agencies, including the Corps, are hard at work on these projects. Once they are in place, we will continue to execute our paramount responsibility for managing flood risk while also having an improved water management system that makes more water available at the right quantities, quality and timing for maximum public benefit.
Our efforts are not limited to the longer term. This year, following a historically-wet month of May, we started releasing water to the east and west estuaries to keep Lake Okeechobee from rising to unsafe levels. While doing that, we also took immediate action to maximize flows to the south and minimize required east and west discharges. The deviations we implemented at the south end of the system include holding additional water in Conservation Area 2 and opening key structures around Conservation Area 3 earlier than usual.
We also completed construction at the C-111 South Dade project near Homestead to enable raising water levels in the canal that runs along the Tamiami Trail by 0.5 feet. This allows more water to flow under the one-mile bridge built by the Corps. The C-111 South Dade project helps reduce groundwater from seeping out of eastern Everglades National Park onto adjacent properties. As a result of better weather and these changes, the water levels in Conservation Area 3 have dropped roughly 0.4 feet since peaking in early July. As the water levels drop, this gives us additional space to move water south from Lake Okeechobee.
We acknowledge the people we serve want to see solutions today. However, the amount of infrastructure we must construct to significantly improve flows to the south is a huge, multi-year undertaking—the equivalent of re-working traffic flows on a massive freeway. With the ongoing support from our State partners, we will continue to make progress. In addition to the recent $100 million state contributions and dedicated funding for the balance of $514 million by the Administration for the Herbert Hoover Dike, we are also laying the groundwork to revise the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and have that new schedule in place upon completion of dike rehabilitation in 2022.
This Nation is at its best when we work together to tackle these challenges. We understand the frustration that many feel but do not lose sight of the fact that we are making tangible progress. With your continued valuable input, we will maintain the increasing momentum towards success. Working together, we can overcome Smith’s “travesty,” restore America’s Everglades, and build an improved water management system that better meets the multiple water needs of Floridians in the 21st Century and beyond.