Water quality is the central issue in a dispute between state engineers and scientists over whether discharge from a planned $550-million Florida Everglades water-storage project will meet state and federal rules—and, more critically, benefit or harm the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary.
The river is the western outlet for water discharged when Lake Okeechobee rises and threatens the dike that encloses it. After heavy January rainfall flooded the lake, water laden with agricultural runoff and nutrients was released into the Caloosahatchee in such
volume that it stirred up river sediment. The result was an environmental disaster for the estuary and for barrier-island tourism.
When built, the C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir, a component of the Everglades restoration project, will store water in the rainy season and gradually release it into the river in the dry season (ENR 7/20/15 p. 10). Construction will begin this summer on the main inflow pump station and the reservoir’s 16-mile embankment, says John Mitnik, a South Florida Water Management District official.
William Mitsch, director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park and a marine scientist at Florida Gulf Coast University, claimed in an April story in the Ft. Myers-based News-Press that the reservoir would simply reproduce lake conditions and not benefit the river. “If you’re going to take the water out of Lake Okeechobee, which is a eutrophic lake, and put it in another body of water, it’s going to be the same as Lake Okeechobee, more or less,” he told ENR. Caloosahatchee Riverwatch, an advocacy group, is working to formulate a position on the reservoir’s design and operation.
But the district contends the concern is overblown. “The reservoir will be filling and draining, rising and falling throughout the year,” says Mitnik. It will not be “a static body of water,” he notes. District spokesman Randy Smith adds, “If you go back to the initial process of planning for this reservoir, all stakeholders have been at the table together. This was a very publicly vetted process.”