Northern Everglades and Southwest Florida Projects on Horizon for Restoration

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) and the Western Everglades Restoration Project are moving forward, with major opportunities for the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.

The LOWRP is a part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and encompasses the 2.6-million-acre watershed located north of Lake Okeechobee. The primary goals of LOWRP are to increase water storage north of Lake Okeechobee by constructing reservoirs, restoring wetlands in the area, and installing underground storage features called Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells. This would have the effect of moderating lake level extremes, reducing harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the coastal estuaries, sending more water to the Everglades while restoring wildlife habitat and providing opportunities for recreation in the area.

The study began in 2016 and the draft plan was issued this February. Under the proposed plan, wetland restoration under the project would increase from 3,500 acres to 5,900 acres. However, the new plan removes reservoir and stormwater treatment area (STA) storage from the project altogether – eliminating more than 250,000-acre feet of reservoir storage and more than 7,500 acres of STA storage.

The project revision also reduces the number of ASR wells from 200 in the original plan to 55 in the current plan; these wells are used to pump water into the aquifer after treatment to store it beneath the ground until it can be used and distributed during dry periods. Together, removal of these features and reduction in the number of wells greatly diminished the ability to store and treat water north of the lake.

The current proposed LOWRP plan deviates significantly from the original, but even the revised version will realize benefits for the ecosystem. The Army Corps of Engineers anticipates that the current plan will reduce harmful discharges to the coastal estuaries, improve the ecological conditions on Lake Okeechobee, and will provide additional water supply to users. Audubon submitted comments supporting the current elements but encouraging the Corps to continue working on viable ways to store more water upstream of the Lake. Only with greatly expanded storage capacity will we realize suitable control over Lake O levels, estuary releases, and sending water back to the Everglades.

The Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP) is also moving forward after recently receiving federal funding under the bipartisan infrastructure package and is moving forward as a result. WERP encompasses 1,200 square miles of projects across several counties in the western Everglades to restore water flow and improve habitat connectivity. The goal? To connect and rehydrate ecosystems in the area, reduce wildfires, and re-establish a low-nutrient environment for native species to thrive. As this work is reinitiated, Audubon will remain involved to ensure that freshwater flow paths are reestablished throughout the project footprint which will benefit Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, as well as Seminole and Miccosukee tribal lands.

This article was published in the Spring edition of State of the Everglades.

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