Column: Focus restoration efforts north of Lake Okeechobee — not south

Lake Okeechobee gets five times the 105 tons of phosphorus per year limit. Stopping nutrients from entering the lake should be the priority. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Lake Okeechobee gets five times the 105 tons of phosphorus per year limit. Stopping nutrients from entering the lake should be the priority.LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published November 25 2016
Updated November 25 2016

Editor's note: Samuel E. Poole III, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who served as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 to 1999, responds to the Nov. 15 column "New reservoir needed to stop algae blooms'' by Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.

I agree with everything in Erik Eikenberg's column concerning Everglades restoration except his priority of treating Lake Okeechobee's nutrient problems after they enter the lake. Our first priority must be stopping the nutrients from entering the lake.

Lake Okeechobee receives about five times the 105 tons of phosphorus per year limit, and nearly all of that phosphorus enters the lake with stormwater from suburban and agricultural development as far north as Orlando. My more than 40 years of experience addressing environmental consequences of development in Florida has taught me that complicated engineering projects are seldom the best response to the unanticipated problems created by complicated engineering projects. Filling in the channel dug through the Kissimmee River is the most successful environmental restoration project in the United States. The takeaway is that undoing mistakes is often more effective than building and maintaining another project to treat the mistake.

For Lake Okeechobee, this means going upstream as close to the source of the stormwater runoff as possible. This also means working with the owners of roughly 1 million acres of undeveloped land remaining in the watershed to undo the drainage ditches and canals sending water to Lake Okeechobee and to hold and clean up stormwater on their land. Using a market-based system known as a fee for environmental services, landowners are compensated based on their effectiveness in holding and treating stormwater.

Regulation alone has not prevented damage to our lakes, rivers, bays and aquifers. Supplementing our regulatory system with a fee for environmental services approach is a rational alternative to more big engineering solutions.

This approach is not new to Florida. The Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project proved the concept in the Lake Okeechobee watershed. Although the program lost leadership and focus with cuts in the South Florida Water Management District budgets, it still exists.

Cost comparisons between government purchasing thousands of acres of land; designing, permitting and constructing; and then maintaining, operating and making corrective modifications to big engineering systems in perpetuity, and paying private landowners to produce clean water crops continue to evolve. It is clear that service payments to landowners will need to make the business of dispersed water management competitive with other uses of land, including agriculture and development. In its mature form, fee for services could allow a mix of uses on small and light footprints, with the majority of the landscape available for water storage and treatment.

Five points are clear when comparing another big engineering fix south of Lake Okeechobee and fee for services water storage and treatment north of Lake Okeechobee:

• Dispersed storage and treatment can be scaled up and have immediate impacts.

• Design, permitting and construction of a 60,000-acre storage and treatment system will take years before it's fully operational.

• Holding and treating stormwater north of the lake will help the estuaries and allow the lake to begin recovery, including cycling out the legacy nutrients in lake sediments.

• Storing and treating stormwater south of the lake will help the estuaries but allow Lake Okeechobee to continue to receive very high nutrient loads.

• If the storage and treatment capacity of the lake's watershed is restored, the important reconnection of Lake Okeechobee with the sawgrass Everglades would be a different project — more like a natural flow way and less like a new lake south of Lake Okeechobee.

Finally, holding stormwater for aquifer recharge instead of dumping it into the estuaries could ease Central Florida's concern about future water supplies. I have experienced too many big engineering fixes to believe that "this time we will get it right."

Samuel E. Poole III is a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and served as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 to 1999.