Miami Herald April 8, 2014

Protecting our vital water supply


A great debate has been raging between those who favor an Everglades flow-way from Lake Okeechobee south and those who say it can’t work and it’s just an hysterical, unwarranted attack on Big Sugar

The reasons for sending water south are pretty clear:

• If you send it anywhere else — like the coastal estuaries — it causes lots of damage.

• Everglades National Park and parts of the Water Conservation Areas need lots more water. They are burning too fiercely and changing the topography and the vegetation.

Sending water south does not have to be an attack on sugar growers. It does have to involve lands that are currently growing sugar cane in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).


Thousands of acres have gone into building shallow stormwater treatment areas in the EAA. Flow Equalization basins (FEBs) are under construction under Gov. Scott’s commitment to clean up the water to federal standards. The Central Everglades Plan is hopefully on its way to congressional authorization. They are raising the Tamiami Trail.

All that will move more water south, but not nearly enough.

What’s missing is a reservoir at the top of the system. That meets resistance from sugar interests because it will take even more land out of production. They react by suggesting improvements in other locations.

There are lots of improvements that need to be made north and east and west of Lake Okeechobee, but it’s hard to get away from the need for a really big reservoir just south of the lake.

That’s where the demand is. That’s why we save water and keep the lake two feet higher in the dry season. Sugar is the biggest water user in all of South Florida. That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) calls for reservoirs east and west of the lake. They will hold runoff from the surrounding watershed and allow it to be re-cycled for agricultural use in the same area. That means we don’t have to store water in the lake to meet their water allocations.

We need the same thing in the EAA.

Besides needing a lot of water, the EAA has another unique problem. The muck soil has oxidized over the years and left sugarcane fields at the bottom of a big shallow dish. Every time it rains at all, they need to pump water off the fields. Every time it doesn’t rain for a week, they need to pump water onto the fields from Lake Okeechobee.

By pumping water from sugarcane fields into a reservoir when it rains in the EAA and back on the fields when it’s dry, you get much greater efficiency in stormwater treatment. You don’t have to clean water you are going to re-use for irrigation.

By adding extra storage and re-use in the EAA, you don’t have to keep Lake Okeechobee too full in the dry season and you don’t have to dump it on the estuaries when the wet season gets too wet.

Why not build a big reservoir somewhere else, like in the Kissimmee Valley? Because you can’t get that re-use efficiency from a distant reservoir. You can’t pump from the sugar cane fields up to the Kissimmee when it rains in the EAA. You can’t get the immediate water supply benefits of an on- site reservoir from a reservoir that’s 100 miles away.

When it comes to sending more water south, arguing about flow-ways vs. reservoirs vs. doing nothing has ended in doing nothing. We need to find the best way to send water south. If it’s through a flow-way, let’s do it. If the reservoir idea works better, let’s do it.

State Sen. Joe Negron has proposed a budget allocation of $250,000 so the University of Florida Water Institute can develop a plan for moving water south.

All of South Florida needs to get behind that proposal. For the urban areas, it’s your water supply. It’s freedom from smoke that blankets the coast in a west wind.

For the coastal estuaries, it’s survival. They will die if we don’t send more water south.

For the world, it’s the wonder and diversity of America’s Everglades.

Maggy Hurchalla is a Miami native and a former Martin County commissioner. She served on the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, which developed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.