The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, an initiative developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District to improve the watershed surrounding Lake Okeechobee, met strong criticism with its original plan to build a reservoir along the northeast border of the Brighton Reservation. After months of debate from Tribal members, organizations and county officials, USACE has developed a new alternative plan.
The new proposed Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP), called Alt 1BW (K05 Wetland Attenuation Feature), is a $1.31 billion project that includes 43,000 acre-feet of shallow storage in a reservoir, 80 Aquifer, Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells and an estimated 448,000 acre-feet of storage every year. If constructed, the northern part of the reservoir would run alongside Paradise Run Wetland while the main body of the reservoir would run along the southern border of the Brighton Reservation. The closest distance between the reservoir and the Brighton Reservation would be .47 miles.
The previous TSP, called Alternative 1B Shallow, had approximately 65,000 acre-feet of storage within two reservoirs – K-05 North and K-05 South – and was situated along the entire northeast border of the Brighton Reservation and the west border of Paradise Run Wetland. The alternative contained the same plan for ASR wells. Other original alternatives included a reservoir in Highlands County just west of the Kissimmee River Center Wetland as part of Alternative 2Cr and two reservoirs – one in Highlands County and one North of Brighton just west of Paradise Run – as part of Alternative 2B.
USACE’s Lisa Aley said during a Project Delivery Team (PDT) meeting on May 2 that there were many issues expressed by communities, government officials and the USACE Jacksonville District’s vertical team. Among those concerns were dam safety, stakeholder coordination, invasion of habitats and the Tribe’s water entitlement.
To help alleviate these issues, the new TSP has the following features: Provides more wetland habitat and avoids grasshopper sparrow habitat, adjacent ASR wells provide maximum storage and flexibility, and a shallow wetland attenuation feature that buys down dam safety risk.
The Tribe also expressed concerns about the original TSP invading culturally significant sites.
“Because of all of these questions and concerns about formulating for storage within the project area, the team went back and looked at the study area to see if there are other potential locations to consider,” Aley said. “What we’ve learned from our model results is that water availability along with the ability to collocate reservoirs with ASR wells exceeds maximizing our performance. It is much more cost effective to build one large reservoir rather than to build numerous smaller ones.”
Aley went on to say that the K-05 footprint, which Alt1BW is a part of, is the most efficient compared to other sites USACE tested. This is because the K-05 reservoir would pull water directly from Lake Okeechobee and the engineers can place ASR wells with the reservoir to increase its overall water storage. The primary differences between Alt 1BW and the previous TSP is that Alt 1BW uses a smaller revised footprint within K-05, has a shallower depth and would operate like a flow-through wetland to capture flows and provide a wetland habitat.
While improvements were made, according to the Corps, some of the revisions were not approved or even seen by the Tribe prior to the May 2 meeting.
Anne Mullins, assistant director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, said that the Corps presented the new TSP to Tribal Council and Board on April 25. At the meeting, Tribal officials recommended changes to the plan, but did not see the updated version before the Corps released the plan to the public. It wasn’t until THPO staff acquired the presentation and presented it to Tribal leadership on May 7 that they saw the presented revisions.
“We had not taken it back to leadership at that point,” Mullins said. “So leadership had not had any chance and the community had not had any chance to review any of this yet.”
After reviewing the material, Mullins and Bradley Mueller, THPO compliance review supervisor, found that although the new planned reservoir pulls back from the reservation lines on the north side, the overall design still infringes upon cultural sites.
“There is a cultural site, a prehistoric mound site that would be within the reservoir boundaries as the Corps presented them. It’s called the Mulberry Mound. That’s one of the obvious concerns that we would like avoided somehow,” Mueller said. “Most of the rest of the reservoir area has yet to be surveyed for cultural resources, so there are huge unknowns here as to what they are going to find once they start working.”
Despite the cultural resources, the Army Corps will not complete a cultural survey of the area until they have a more final plan. Mueller said that cultural surveys are one of the final steps prior to construction because much of the plan takes place on private lands.
“We still have considerable concern about what they’re going to find when they survey these areas because if you look at previously recorded sites around this area there is a lot,” he said. “This is a heavily occupied area.”
Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project’s next steps
There are currently no meetings planned between the Army Corps and the Tribe, but the Tribe is still planning to present their response and recommendations for the new TSP in the coming months.
The Corps presented the new TSP to the vertical team in Atlanta on May 4. The vertical team approved the plan for agency and public review and comment. The plan can still change pending recommendations.
Over the next 90 days, the Corps plans to complete their Environmental Impact Statement, agency technical review, independent external peer review, public review, assurances modeling and TSP optimization and refinement. They also plan to have a draft of the Project Implementation Report and Environmental Impact Statement available for review June 29. The public review and comment period will be from June 29 to August 13.