The Lake Okeechobee Watershed (LOW) desperately needs more capacity to slow and clean water on its way to the Lake. The 2.6-million-acre watershed, which extends north to Orlando, is vast, flat, over-drained, and accounts for 90% of the water that flows into Lake Okeechobee. During the wet season (especially during extreme weather events) and when ground water saturation levels are high, water moves quickly through the watershed, causing the lake to rise rapidly. The most recent wet season is the perfect example: the lake rose 5.5 feet, to a high of 16.45 feet in November 2020, following an above average wet season capped off with an encore by Tropical Storm Eta.
The South Florida Water Management District’s Lake Okeechobee Watershed Construction Project (Phase II) sets a storage target of 900,000 acre-feet, equal to about two to three feet of lake depth, to buffer lake levels during storms and reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Governor DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force echoed the need for water storage in the LOW in its Consensus Document #1, stating “regional storage and treatment infrastructure is urgently needed to manage flows to reduce damaging freshwater discharges to the northern estuaries, and also to achieve Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) as well as established Numeric Nutrient Criteria (NNC). Accordingly, the task force recommends that siting, design and funding of this infrastructure be a priority.”1 Water stored during the wet season also will help fight shortages during the dry season.
The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, a component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), is intended to address water storage north of the lake but on its own will not meet established water storage targets. The restoration project has three principal components: a 46,000 acre-foot shallow reservoir called a wetland attenuation feature; restoration of approximately 4,800 acres of wetlands that were drained when the Kissimmee River was channelized; and 80 Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells. CERP envisioned significant surface water storage and quality components in the LOW including a 200,000-acre-foot storage reservoir, a 2,500-acre storm water treatment area north of the lake, and a 50,000-acre-foot reservoir and 20,000-acre-foot stormwater treatment area in the Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough Basin. The water storage components currently in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project fall short of what was originally contemplated by CERP.
To illustrate the point, the water storage capacity of 46,000 acre-feet is approximately 15 billion gallons of water. By contrast, Hurricane Irma raised lake levels by three feet — or 500 billion gallons — in just thirty days. Reconsidering how to increase the storage capacity and where to situate the surface water features of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project may provide opportunities for improvement that will justify the billion-dollar price tag.
The challenges are large, but so is the watershed, as are the number of partners and approaches we can tap. Through cooperation and tenacity, we can make Lake Okeechobee’s and south Florida’s futures better.