CLEWISTON — John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston was packed to standing room only Aug. 16 for a meeting about the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP). The project is at the start of a three-year planning process, and the public scoping meeting allowed members of the public to give their input.
WERP is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). It will be done simultaneously with the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project (LOW) which will store and clean water north of the lake.
Matt Morrison, Everglades Policy & Coordination Chief with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) explained the project’s goals:
• Restore and improve seasonal hydroperiods and freshwater distribution to support a natural mosaic of wetland and upland habitat in the western Everglades ecosystem;
• Reestablish and improve sheetflow patterns, surface water depths, and durations in the study area to reduce soil subsidence and the frequency of damaging peat fires; and,
• Reduce water loss out of the natural system to prevent over-drainage and improve ground and surface water elevations.
He explained that CERP was planned in 1999 with 68 component projects to be implemented over 30 years. Some projects are at or near completion. For example, the Kissimmee River Restoration is part of CERP.
He said in the WERP component, water managers will look at revised operations, removing barriers to flow and opportunities to fill in some canals to restore historic sheetflow in some areas.
“We also need ways to store water for the dry season, instead of sending it to tide,” he said.
One goal of CERP is to partially restore the watershed’s historic flow. The flow cannot be completely restored, because of all of the people, homes, businesses and farms that are now part of the system.
A century of ditching, dredging and draining have vastly changed the flow of water.
Mr. Morrison said the Kissimmee River was once a twisted, meandering river. In the rainy season, the river would overflow the banks over hundreds of acres of floodplain. The water would flow slowly into Lake Okeechobee, and when Okeechobee spilled over it’s southern banks, the water would flow into the Everglades.
Following devastating hurricanes in the late 1920s, the lake was contained by the 30-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike, for flood protection.
Following extensive flooding in the 1940s, the Kissimmee River was channelized into a deep, straight channel, also for flood protection.
Before humans entered the system, he explained, Lake Okeechobee had no connection to the St. Lucie on the east.
On the west, the lake was only connected to the Caloosahatchee River by a series of shallow marshes. The initial dredging that connected both rivers to the lake was part of a liquid highway, dug in the 1880s, long before the area had reliable roads.
Projects that followed, straightened the Caloosahatchee River and deepened the canals for flood control and to drain land for development.
CEPR projects will restore some of the historic flow, sending less water east and west, and more water south.
Kelly Keefe, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), explained that WERP will be connected to Lake Okeechobee by a canal. She said it will be possible to use the canal connection to relieve Lake Okeechobee of some of the high water levels.
“It will make the water flow more naturally and reconnect this area with the greater Everglades,” she explained.
The plans will be designed to make sure the water is on the land where it should be, when it should be and for as long as it should be, she said.
“We have discovered that sheet flow is important to the system,” she said.
Restoring sheet flow will reduce the loss of soil to erosion, and reduce the incidence of peat fires.
While the study area is 920 square miles, she explained they do not yet know how much land will be required for the projects, or how much of that property is already owned by the state.
“It’s a large scale ecosystem project,” she said.
“The big CERP plan is a lot of projects that work together like a big jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “We want to improve the systemwide operational functionality.
“Every time we put another piece in the puzzle, we improve flexibility,” he said.
The planning process for WERP is expected to take 36 months, explained Andrew LoShiavo, also with USACE. He said public input will be sought throughout the planning process. The next opportunity for public input will be at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force Meeting on Aug. 23, at the John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Some members of the public at the meeting appeared frustrated that the UUSACE and SWFMD officials could not provide details on the plan such as the exact amount of land that will be needed and how much of that land is already owned by the state. The preliminary study area includes some residential areas, some farmland and part of the Big Cypress Preserve as well as land belonging to the Miccosukee Tribe and the Seminole Tribe.
Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor said the Clewiston community supports CERP. She said they support projects that are scientifically proven.
Unfortunately, she said, some activists are threatening the progress of CERP by demanding state funding to be allocated to other, unproven plans that involve buying large tracts of land currently used for sugar cane farming.
“Our communities are not for sale,” Commissioner Taylor said.
“I believe the CERP should be funded and completed,” said Clewiston City Commissioner Mali Gardner, adding that she is especially concerned about the repairs needed to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Clewiston Mayor Philip Roland called for water storage and cleaning north of Lake Okeechobee.
“The Kissimmee River Valley covers 5,500 square miles that all dump water into Lake Okeechobee,” he said.
“Until you control that 95 percent of the water that comes into Lake Okeechobee, you cannot control the south,” he said.
“Let Orlando and everything south share the adversity,” he said.
Paul McGeeHee of Glades Electric Co-op noted that part of the area under consideration for the WERP includes Glades Electric customers and infrastructure. He asked for assurance that the members of the co-op will not be on the hook for costs of moving the infrastructure.
“Please keep us in the loop,” Mr. McGeeHee said.
Vivian Haney, the reigning Miss Sugar, said taking farmland out of production would cost jobs, and could destroy the economy of the Clewiston community. She said the farmers support the science-based projects in CERP.
“It’s about time you are waking up,” said Bobby Billie of the Miccosukee Tribe. He said if we don’t preserve the natural land, there will be nothing left for future generations.
The original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) project identified to restore and reconnect the western Everglades ecosystem was called the Big Cypress/L-28 Interceptor Modification. The purpose of this project, as defined within the CERP, is to reestablish sheetflow from the West Feeder Canal across the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation and into Big Cypress preserve, maintain flood protection on Seminole Tribal lands, and ensure that inflows to the North and West Feeder Canals meet applicable water quality standards.
Project features considered under CERP include modification of levees and canals, water control structures, pumps, and stormwater treatment areas with a total storage capacity of 7,600 acre-feet located within and adjacent to the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian Reservations in Collier and Hendry Counties. This CERP component will serve as the starting point for the WERP and will be refined through the planning process.
Comments are currently being accepted on the project through Aug.24, 2016, and can be sent electronically to: Western.Everglades@usace.army.mil.
Or, comments can be mailed to:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District
P.O. Box 4970
Jacksonville, FL 32232-0019