The key to making the EAA reservoir work might have been under our feet all along.

Scientists have said for years that the project can’t succeed without enough land. To stop discharges to the coasts and restore the Everglades, the system needs more than storage. It needs to constantly refill and empty as fast as it can in the wet season, flowing through treatment marshes to filter out pollution before sending it south. It works like a river using a floodplain to clean water as it goes.

US Sugar says the scientists are wrong, the public owns enough land already to make it work, and the industry won’t sell any. They might be (partly) right. Records show there’s more public land available in the EAA beyond the 18,000 acres earmarked for this project. Maybe a lot more.

The proposed reservoir site (A2 in the map below) came from the federal government’s 1997 purchase of the 52,000-acre Talisman Tract. Back then the plan was almost the same: build a dynamic reservoir to clean and send water to the Everglades–and not to the coasts. (The plan collapsed, and there’s more to the story than recent reports suggest, but that’s for another week.)

So where are those other 34,000 acres?

The good news is that some are right next to the reservoir site (A1 and B in the map below). If the project needs more land to filter water, it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. We should start planning now to convert this public land for the project.

Because the federal government swapped some of the Talisman acreage with sugar companies and SFWMD in 1999, there’s more public land to the west (C in the map above, plus another 18,000 acres to its west, a former citrus farm now called the C-139 Annex). Today parcel C is part of stormwater treatment areas (STAs) 5/6, which filter pollution from sugarcane fields, but it can be switched to filtering much cleaner water from Lake Okeechobee before sending it to the Everglades.

How much cleaner? SFWMD reported that water entering STA 5/6 in July contained more than 40 times the allowable phosphorus concentration in the Everglades (421 ppb), and outgoing water exceeded the standard by more than 25 times (252 ppb).

Taking the entire past year into account, water entering STA 5/6 was still heavily polluted, with phosphorus concentrations averaging 223 ppb; and phosphorus in outgoing water exceeding the legal standard (10 ppb) by 500%. So untreated lake water (~100 ppbphosphorus) is more than 2x cleaner than sugarcane runoff pumped onto this publicly owned land.

This invites a question about whether it’s legal–especially in the era of Polluter Pays–for a private industry to use taxpayer-owned property and public agency funding to clean up its pollution, but that’s for another week, too.

What’s important now is making all this public land available for the EAA reservoir project, so it can be converted to storage, treatment, and conveyance to end toxic discharges and get clean water back to the Everglades.

If the sugar industry prefered, they might swap property closer to the reservoir for these STAs. That could be the best outcome for everyone:

  • Florida would get the land it needs to successfully restore the Everglades, replenish Miami’s water supply, and cut toxic discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee

  • Taxpayers would get out of the business of cleaning up a private industry’s pollution, which isn’t working anyway; public water quality data shows that the industry isn’t close to meeting legal standards

  • The sugar industry would be able to build its own water treatment facilities wherever it makes the most sense on their property, without selling any more land

However we arrange it, this could be a breakthrough for everyone who cares about clean water. The people of Florida already own at least a big part of the land required to reconnect the River of Grass.

We’re going to need it back.


Peter Girard

P.S. This year supporters helped deliver a historic clean water victory. Now the sugar industry is spending millions to reverse it. If you can, please click here to make a donation for the future of the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee, Florida Bay, and the River of Grass.