The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hit a benchmark Aug. 28 in its plans for a variety of water-related construction projects along Lake Okeechobee.
The Corps’s Jacksonville District has published the final project report and environmental impact statement for its “Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project,” also known as LOWRP.
The Corps’ proposals and plans have long been closely tracked and monitored by the Seminole Tribe.
Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resource Office (HERO), said the latest phase marks a “major milestone.” He said the Tribe now has 30 days to review the documents, which were expected to be available on the Corps’s website.
The review period is in place so the Tribe and other state and agency partners can then send final comments to the Corps on its LOWRP plans.
Lake Okeechobee issues of many kinds are important to the Tribe. But when it comes to LOWRP, the situation intensifies because the Brighton Reservation is close in proximity to many of the proposed projects that have thus far been in a study and comment phase.
The Corps held public meetings on the projects in the summer of 2018 and has been updating documents since.
Projects include aquifer, storage and recovery (ASR) wells and so-called “shallow storage” water projects. The water storage projects are essentially a type of reservoir, what the Corps calls a “wetland attenuation feature.”
During heavy precipitation, it would ostensibly help weaken water flows into Lake Okeechobee without storing it for long periods.
The Corps is tasked with managing Lake Okeechobee water and decides how and when to discharge and distribute water before it reaches dangerously high levels.
Those decisions have effects on surrounding communities as well as those located along tributaries to the east and west coasts of the state, as discharges to the south are not always viable.
LOWRP project manager Tim Gysan said while the Covid-19 pandemic slowed some progress, no LOWRP timelines have been significantly altered.
Final plans would still need to be authorized by the U.S. Congress for approval and funding before any on-the-ground construction begins, Gysan said.
Ongoing concerns The Tribe’s unease regarding water storage near the Brighton Reservation is due to the potential for life threatening flooding, property damage, negative environmental impacts, water supply and agricultural issues and encroachment on Tribal lands.
Gysan said the Corps has taken Tribal feedback into consideration throughout the process and is using a more phased approach as well as additional monitoring when it comes to the ASR wells. He said the first storage site would essentially serve as a test system.
“Where we could run it through operational testing and collect monitoring data to specifically answer some of the remaining questions, and more site-specific questions, before we’d proceed with full scale implementation at the sites,” Gysan said. “We’d check specific sites to make sure that they are performing before we’d implement a full ASR system.”
An exact timeline for construction of dozens of ASR wells isn’t known, but full implementation could take up to 15 years, Gysan said.
“There is some state funding that has come in to begin small scale implementation and address some of those scientific unknowns and the questions – many of the questions can’t be addressed without constructing some wells,” he said.
The first phase construction out of the state funding could begin as soon as late 2021.
Stacy D. Myers, a senior scientist/liaison for the Tribe, argues that a breach analysis already conducted by the Corps showed the proposed projects would potentially flood the Brighton Reservation.
“If there’s a breach on the north side it will flood the Reservation, and that’s acceptable to them,” Myers said. “When they look at the whole scope and the risk analysis, there’s an acceptable level of risk, a certain amount of destruction. To us, they should be using our risk standards, which are zero loss of life and property damage from a potential breach.”
Myers likens it to the reservation being put into a guinea pig situation.
“Just to be sure, we’re going to build part of this and we’ll see,” he said.
Myers, who has worked for more than 10 years for the Tribe and for 20 years as a South Florida Water Management District liaison and advocate for the Tribe, said Tribal leadership wants the projects to be moved further up the watershed and away from the Reservation.
“Historically there were no reservoirs in this particular location – all of it was further up,” he said. “We should be trying to return things back to the way they were as much as possible.”
In the meantime, the Tribe continues to be in talks with Corps officials and reviews documents and plans.
“We’re trying to convince the headquarters that these attenuation features in particular are a really bad idea,” Myers said. “It’s not good for the Tribe and doesn’t provide the benefits that the Corps is seeking.”