Fishy business with FL Legislature’s push for wells north of Lake O

algae bloom
Toxic green slime coming out of Lake Okeechobee. Credit: John Moran

My dad has always enjoyed fishing. When I was a kid, he loved taking me with him and showing me how to bait the hook, cast the line, and not freak out when my rod suddenly bent double.

One important thing I learned from him was that a placid surface can be deceptive. A lot can be going on down below, out of sight, even right underneath you — and if you aren’t alert to the signs, you could miss it.

I thought of Dad’s fishing lesson when I heard how legislative leaders are talking up an Everglades-related program that they’re calling a solution. It sounds all hunky-dory on the surface, but it turns out there’s a lot going on underneath. I mean, a LOT.

I’m not the first one to notice this, of course.

“It’s clear that somebody’s talking to the Legislature and whispering in their ear that this is great,” Chauncey Goss, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District board, told me this week. “They may be right — but we don’t know that yet.”

All the state’s newspapers have been running stories on what our legislators are going to do when they start holding committee meetings in January.

Are they going to give businesses legal protection from being sued for risking their employees’ lives during the pandemic? (Probably.)

Will they fix the state’s broken unemployment system? (Dream on.)

FL Sen. Wilton Simpson, sworn in as the 89th president of the Florida Senate. (Nov. 17, 2020). Credit: Florida Channel, screenshot.

Hardly anyone has mentioned water. But this fall, Senate President-designate and professional egg farmer Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) told business leaders that he expects his colleagues to jump on a water-related issue when they convene. He wants them to put a whole bunch of taxpayer money aside to build something to hold back the polluted stormwater that right now flows southward into already-polluted Lake Okeechobee.

And he expects it will fix one of South Florida’s biggest and longest lasting problems just like that. (Simpson is now the Florida Senate President. He represents Citrus, Hernando and part of Pasco County.)

The problem is managing the water in Lake Okeechobee. It’s the largest lake in the state, and the way it operates always makes me think of those big, unwieldy Rube Goldberg machines where you push one lever and it makes a whole bunch of other things happen that look kind of goofy.

A lake with problems

Lake Okeechobee has long functioned as both a water supply source and a disposal basin. But if the water in the lake gets too high, the ancient dike around the lake could crack and water could pour out, inundating the towns around the lake. Nobody wants that.

So, when the water level approaches that point, the agency that manages the lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flushes a lot of the lake water out. They dump it into a pair of waterways that send it shooting to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

But nothing good happens when they do that. The releases have been known to fuel toxic algae blooms around Stuart on the east coast and Sanibel on the west coast. People on the two coasts want it to stop, and various politicians have promised to figure out how.

Environmental groups have been pushing for years to send the Lake Okeechobee water southward instead of to the east and west. First it would go into a new reservoir and then be slowly released into Everglades National Park and then Florida Bay. That’s the direction the water used to flow to before the state and federal government built an elaborate system of levees, pipes, pumps, and canals to drain the famous marsh for agriculture.

However, such a reservoir would need to be built on land now owned by sugar companies, and they don’t want to sell.

But don’t worry — Sen. Simpson has the answer!

“We need to go and work on northern storage more aggressively, because northern storage will actually fix the problem,” Simpson told attendees at the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Future of Florida Forum, according to the News Service of Florida. “When we’re talking about fixing the root causes of our problems, a substantial amount of the Everglades’ problems come from the northern Everglades.”

Simpson was referring to a proposal to spend more than $1 billion to build 80 aquifer storage and recovery wells along the northern rim of the lake to hold the stormwater. Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells hold water in a bubble in the brackish part of the aquifer until it’s needed and can be brought back up to the surface (hence the “recovery” part of the name). Goss’ agency has scheduled a Zoom workshop on this proposal for next Tuesday.

Florida State Sen. Ray Wesley Rodrigues. Credit: Florida Senate.

“This project has serious momentum thanks to the leadership of Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson (now Florida Senate President) and Governor [Ron] DeSantis, who are making the elimination of Lake Okeechobee discharges a high priority,” another senator, Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers) wrote in an op-ed in the Fort Myers News-Press last month.

“The project can be built more quickly than nearly any other restoration project in the pipeline,” Rodrigues wrote. “Taxpayers should also appreciate that it costs a fraction of what above-ground storage reservoirs will cost.”

ASR wells are nothing new. They’re being used for water supply in a lot of places, including the Sarasota area. The Legislature last spring put $50 million toward building all those ASR wells north of the lake, and Rodrigues wrote that they’re aiming at putting another $50 million into the project this coming year.

But no one has ever used ASR wells for stormwater control, and certainly not at such a large scale, Tom Van Lent, the chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, told me this week. And nobody knows if they will do what they’re supposed to do.

“Anybody who says they know this is going to work hasn’t really looked at the science,” he said.

Five years ago, the National Academies of Science took a long, hard look at the use of ASR for Everglades restoration and came up with more questions than answers, Van Lent pointed out. One of the biggies: “Chronic toxicity testing and regional water quality modeling suggest there could be ecological hazards associated with using recovered aquifer water in the Everglades.”

Another one: “Research is also needed on pathogen survival considering a wider suite of pathogens under groundwater conditions.”

In other words, if you flush polluted water down underground, it doesn’t get clean automatically. In fact, it may have chemical interactions with the rocks down there and come back out more toxic than it was. We still don’t have the answers to those questions that the National Academies of Science raised, Van Lent said.

There are also questions about the cost, Van Lent pointed out. While ASR wells are indeed cheaper to build than a reservoir, they cost a lot more to operate and maintain, he said.

The hidden hand behind the push

Goss, the water district chairman, agreed that there are still a lot of unanswered questions. “It’s proven technology, but using it this way, in clusters, did set off some alarm bells,” he said. “This is popping up everywhere as if it’s the silver bullet, and there is no silver bullet.”

Goss refused to speculate about who’s been whispering in the ears of Sen. Simpson and his colleagues about how great ASR is. Unfortunately, Simpson’s staff didn’t respond to my request for comment. But Van Lent said the evidence points to Big Sugar.

“If the ASR wells are built, then there’s no need for a reservoir on their land,” he said. “They get access to all that water. And the taxpayers pay for it all.”

Kimberly Mitchell, executive director of Everglades Trust and a former West Palm Beach city commissioner, also called Big Sugar the hidden hand behind the push for ASR wells.

“They’re very clever about getting people to see it the way they want them to see it,” she told me. “It’s so much easier when you’re taking a lot of campaign money from them to say, ‘They’re right.’”

I asked Judy Sanchez of U.S. Sugar if they are indeed behind the push for the ASR wells. She replied that sugar growers “support storage projects north, south, east, and west of Lake Okeechobee. … Farmers have been successful partners in restoration since 1994, and we have a sincere interest in seeing these efforts succeed because we are a vital part of South Florida’s past, present, and future.”

So now you know: The water project facing apparently smooth sailing in the Legislature has a lot of turbulent action going on beneath the surface, just like my dad used to warn me. I can’t say for sure, but this does smell kind of fishy. And it sure looks like, if the Legislature isn’t careful, it’s us taxpayers who’ll be on the hook.