There is a lack of available capacity in Southeast Florida to store excess water during major rainfall events. When storms occur, the only place to store large volumes of stormwater runoff in the regional drainage system is Lake Okeechobee. However, the Lake cannot safely store water above a specific lake regulation level based on the time of year. If Lake Okeechobee is at or near its storage capacity the only way to reduce the risk of a failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike which surrounds the Lake is to release water to the east through the St. Lucie Canal and into the St. Lucie Estuary or to the West Palm Beach Canal which feeds into the Lake Worth Estuary, or to the west through the Caloosahatchee Canal into the Caloosahatchee Estuary. These releases of water from Lake Okeechobee combined with local basin runoff have severe environmental impacts to the estuaries.
Saline levels are reduced to fresh water levels and excess silt and pollutants enter the estuaries destroying sea grass beds, oysters and other dependent wildlife. In the St. Lucie Estuary the Martin County Health Department recently issued health warnings stating people should not be exposed to the water for fear of contracting water borne diseases. Businesses that depend on the clean and productive estuaries are harmed and people complain about the odor of the water passing through the estuaries near their homes and businesses.
In 2007, the activities dependent on the Indian River Lagoon generated $1.6 billion in the value of goods and services produced in the Lagoon counties and, in the case of Lagoon-related boat-related expenditures, in Florida. The production of these goods and services generated $630 million in income to residents and $112 million in State and local tax revenues. These activities supported 15,000 full and part-time jobs. Of the $630 million of income, at least $358 million accrues to residents of the five county Lagoon area and the rest accrues to residents in all of Florida. (IRLNEP, 2oo8).
The region must increase its water storage capacity and water disbursement efforts to reduce the releases of water to the St. Lucie and Lake Worth estuaries. Here is a list of current storage plans underway:
Emergency Storage Efforts
• Emergency Pumping Agreements with Landowners (1,030 ac-ft)
• Pre-Project Lands Emergency Storage (2,215 ac-ft)
• Other South Florida Water Management District Lands (Maximizing storage opportunities on 148,771 acres of natural lands)
• Local Drainage Districts and the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) – Retaining maximum amount of water possible
• Dispersed Water Management Program (61,3oo ac-ft average annual)
• Regional Facilities (stormwater treatment areas, reservoirs, etc., 72,oo ac-ft average annual)
Since 2005, the SFWMD has been working with a coalition of agencies, environmental organizations, ranchers and researchers to enhance opportunities for storing excess surface water on private and public lands. Managing water on these lands, known as the Dispersed Water Management Program, is one tool to reduce the amount of water flowing during the wet season into the lake and discharged to coastal estuaries for flood protection. Private ranch lands in this program currently provide a storage volume of more than 60,000 acre-feet. Shallow water retention also provides groundwater recharge for water supply, potential for water quality improvements, and rehydration of drained ecosystems. The program encourages property owners to retain water on their land rather than drain it, to accept and detain regional runoff or to do both.