By GEORGE ANDREASSI
April 27, 2007 Stuart News
A proposal to build a 25-mile long, 10-mile wide "flow-way" from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades — which would provide an alternative to releasing lake water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers — is gaining political traction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relieves high water levels in Lake Okeechobee by releasing billions of gallons of water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, damaging the water quality of the estuaries as well as local fishing, boating, tourism and real estate industries.
The lake water contains fertilizer, pesticides and sediment that run off farms and lawns into the waterways leading to the lake. Also, too much fresh water in the St. Lucie River has been linked to fish lesions and toxic algae blooms in 2005.
The flow-way would send the lake water south to replenish the Everglades and underground drinking water supply, the environmental activists said. Plants and soil would filter nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen from the water.
"The Corps has been urged to re-evaluate this concept of a flow-way, and the momentum on both the east coast and the west coast has been building," said Paul Millar, Martin County's water resource manager.
The Corps and the Martin County Office of Water Quality are set to make a presentation about the flow-way proposal to the Martin County Commission on Tuesday. The Rivers Coalition, a group of local advocates for the St. Lucie River, is also expected to get an update on the proposal Friday.
Supporters of the flow-way said they were encouraged that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Tallahassee, mentioned the proposal during his visit to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce on April 3.
"I can't say that we put a rubber stamp of support on it," said Bryan Gulley, Nelson's spokesman. "But being a strong supporter of the Everglades, as Nelson is, he's interested in looking into any proposals that might further restore the Everglades, including this one.
"That's why he asked the Army Corps for a cost-benefit analysis to see if the plan makes economic sense. We're looking into this because it seems that more and more individuals are starting to bring up the concept of the southern flow-way."
Constructing a southern flow-way from Lake Okeechobee to release lake water could be an alternative to an expensive rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake, said Alan Bugg, the corps' chief of construction and operations.
Government reports show that if the lake's water level exceeds 18 feet, water can seep under the 35-foot earthen dike and compromise it. That could cause flooding in western Palm Beach County, according to the Army Corps.
"If this option were selected, then water would just be able to flow out the spill way and it would never rise up on the dike," Bugg said.
There is no cost estimate for the flow-way proposal, but the dike rehabilitation is expected to cost $846 million, Bugg said.
In addition to calculating the price tag of the flow-way, the Corps must determine whether it fits with the projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Bugg said. The plan was formulated by the state and federal governments in an attempt to restore the environment and natural flow of water into the Everglades.
A decision on the dike options is expected in late summer or early fall. Congress has the final say, Bugg said.
The recent drought shows the wastefulness of flushing billions of gallons of lake water into the rivers to the east and west during rainy times, several Treasure Coast environmental activists said.
"We waste about ... 1.7 Billion gallons a day of fresh water that normally would flow from Kissimmee to the lake and south into the Everglades," said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society.
"So especially during a drought time here, we wondered, well why are we wasting 1.7 Billion gallons a day?" Perry said. "Why can't we allow that water to flow south and slowly percolate down into the ground water to recharge wells?"
LAKE OKEECHOBEE SOUTHERN
Length: 25 miles
Width: 10 miles
Depth: 1-4 feet
Land needed: 50,000-60,000 acres
Maximum water flow: 4 billion gallons per day
Mark Perry, Florida Oceanographic Society