The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently received notification from the United States Environmental Protection Agency that the permits for Everglades restoration projects requested earlier in the month have been approved. This paves the way for an historic 12 year plan that includes an array of treatment projects and water storage construction, all with the goal of improving the water quality of one of the world's most precious habitats, the Everglades.
Months of scientific and technical discussions led to the comprehensive plan, which the Department will enforce through state-issued permits and consent orders that include milestones for project completion, as well as enforcement mechanisms to ensure the milestones are met. The plan calls for the District to construct approximately 6,500 acres of additional state-of-the-art storm water treatment areas and close to 110,000 acre-feet of associated water storage. Many core project components will be designed, constructed and operational within six years.
Regional Administrator for the US EPA Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming stated, "The Obama Administration has reinvigorated the federal government's commitment to Everglades restoration, both in terms of water quality and water quantity and distribution. The federal government is investing more than $1.4 billion in partnership with the State including: restoration of more than 3,000 acres of the floodplains along the Kissimmee River; bridging of the Tamiami Trail to facilitate water flows to Everglades National Park; and implementation of key components of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to deliver more clean water to the Everglades. The State's water quality plan would complement the other State and federal habitat restoration and water quantity and quality projects that together will provide for a comprehensive restoration of this international treasure.”
Included in the implementation process is a revised National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system permit, which has already been submitted, that will authorize the operation of a 57,000 acre Stormwater Treatment Area south of Lake Okeechobee. Next the Department will issue what is being called a Notice of Draft and a Notice of Intent to Issue the Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit along with the state-issued Everglades Forever Act, which are still under review.
Southwest Florida Water Management District Executive Melissa Meeker said, "The District is taking a landmark step toward meeting the water quality needs of America's Everglades. We will continue to work closely with our federal partners to finalize and implement these important projects.”
Highlights of the strategies include the design, construction and completion of 90 percent (99,000 acre-feet) of the required associated storage within four years. Capable of storing 32 billion gallons of water, the Flow Equalization Basins will be located adjacent to existing storm water treatment areas in the Everglades. This advanced combination of "green” technologies will better optimize water deliveries to new and existing treatment facilities, allowing water managers to treat runoff to extremely low levels of phosphorus for the first time in the state's environmental history.
The plan includes doubling the size of Stormwater Treatment Area 1-West adjacent to the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The District will construct 4,700 acres of additional treatment by 2018 and start construction on another 1,800 acres that same year. This expansion spanning ten square miles will increase by 50 percent the treatment capacity of water quality facilities currently discharging into the Refuge.
Many improvements will be made to existing water treatment measures such as improving treatment in the western Everglades by adding 11,000 acre-feet of associated storage in the C-139 Basin that is capable of storing 3.5 billion gallons and improving the operation of existing treatment wetlands in the western Everglades by retrofitting 800 acres of constructed wetlands in Stormwater Treatment Area 5. The strategy utilizes thousands of acres of land already in public ownership, which minimizes impacts to Florida's agricultural-based economy and accelerating construction of new projects.
According to the DEP's press office, this initiative will create approximately 1,550 direct jobs and 15,350 indirect jobs through construction of these facilities.
To protect the Everglades' unique makeup of flora and fauna, the Department established a stringent phosphorus water quality standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb). This ultra-low phosphorus limit for the Everglades is six times cleaner than rainfall and 100 times lower than limits established for discharges from industrial facilities. In an effort to reduce nutrient pollution to the Everglades and achieve state and federal water quality requirements, the District constructed massive treatment wetlands known as Stormwater Treatment Areas that use plants to naturally remove phosphorus from water flowing into the Everglades. State law also requires best management practices on the 640,000 acres of agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee.
In addition, a robust plan has been put in place to ensure continued biological, ecological and operational research to improve and optimize the performance of water quality treatment technologies. A Science Plan—to be developed within 6 months of permit issuance—will evaluate the many factors influencing phosphorus treatment, such as vegetation and soil variability, water inflow rates and microbial activity. Biological, ecological and operational data will be gathered and analyzed to continually optimize Stormwater Treatment Area performance—both for existing and new water quality projects—in order to achieve one of the lowest phosphorus standards in the nation.
More than 45,000 acres—or 70 square miles—of treatment area are today operational and treating water to average phosphorus levels of less than 40 ppb and as low as 12 ppb. The District is completing construction of an additional 11,500 acres this month. Together with best farming practices, Stormwater Treatment Areas have prevented more than 3,800 tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades since 1994. This past year, the treatment wetlands treated 735,000 acre-feet of water and reduced the total phosphorus loads to the Everglades Protection Area by 79 percent.
This plan to improve water quality builds upon Florida's $1.8 billion investment in Everglades water quality improvements to ensure achievement of the 10 ppb ambient water quality standard for the Everglades Protection Area. The schedule for implementing new projects balances economic realities with engineering, permitting, science and construction limitations. The plan proposes to utilize a combination of state and district revenues to complete the projects.
Implementation of the technical plan is estimated to cost $880 million. The District is proposing to fund the plan through a combination of state and District revenues, including $220 million in ad valorem reserves and $300 million in anticipated revenues associated with long-term new growth in South Florida.
While this plan may seem like a big step towards the right direction, Commissioner Ray Judah feels that, quite simply, more land is needed to really make this initiative effective. "Anytime you look at this type of issue, you have to first look at the water budget,” he said.
The breakdown on the water budget starts with 4.7 million acre-feet of water of which 2.4 million acre-feet goes to evaporation, 500 thousand acre-feet goes to agriculture, and 800 thousand acre-feet goes to the reservoirs. That leaves one million acre-feet that needs to go somewhere, and when that water is simply released down the Caloosahatchee, it blows out the estuaries and creates problems within our environment.
"We have to analyze the amount of water that makes its way downstream from Lake Okeechobee, especially when we have heavy rainfall that increases the water 12-16 feet in a matter of a few weeks. When that water gets released is when it wreaks havoc to the estuaries and waterways south of it. We need a minimum of one million acre-feet of storage to address this issue fully, which requires 200 thousand acres for storage where the water is stacked five feet. This plan doesn't even come close.”
While some at the DEP and EPA believe this can be handled by stacking the water at 10 or 20 feet, Commissioner Judah points out that a shallow, slow, meandering flow-way that imitates nature is necessary to achieve restoration.
"It doesn't provide enough stormwater treatment to deal with the dairy and sugarcane field runoff. Under Governor Christ, there was a movement to purchase more land for that purpose, but that effort was stopped by Governor Scott. The current suggestion that we can handle this with existing land doesn't take into account the water budget. More land is needed.”