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Elizabeth Djinis
By Elizabeth Djinis October 21, 2022

DeSantis acted on Lake Okeechobee reservoir, but it’s still years from completion

Gov. Ron DeSantis has called the project to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee in southeastern Florida the "crown jewel of Everglades restoration." The environmental effort was first approved more than 20 years ago in 2000 as part of federal water policy, and DeSantis ran partly on a promise to finish it. 

At an October 2018 gubernatorial debate on CNN, DeSantis pledged that he would be the one to complete the reservoir project. 

"We will build because what you need to do is you need to send water into that reservoir, clean it, send it south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, so you're not discharging the polluted water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries," he said during the debate. "I'll be able to get that done. … I'm the only guy that can do it." 

Although the reservoir has its roots in policy from two decades earlier, the project stalled over disagreements about water quality, according to Anna Upton, chief executive officer of the Everglades Trust, a nonprofit group committed to protecting the Everglades and three coastal estuaries.  

The reservoir project didn't restart in earnest until the Legislature in 2017 passed SB 10, which authorized the acquisition of land for the reservoir and required the South Florida Water Management District to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with some sort of plan. ​

Just two days after he was sworn in as governor, DeSantis included the reservoir project in an executive order with a list of water quality reforms. His order instructed the South Florida Water Management District to "immediately start the next phase" of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project and "ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves the project according to schedule." 

The Everglades reservoir is intended to store additional water from Lake Okeechobee so it can be cleaned and eventually sent to the Everglades and Florida Bay, according to the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group. The project is meant to provide clean freshwater to Floridians and reduce discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

"We need to capture the water when we have a lot of it and make it available when we don't have a lot of it," Upton said. 

The reservoir will be able to hold about 78 billion gallons of water and reduce Lake Okeechobee's water levels by about 6 inches. It is supposed to lower algae-causing discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee by 55%, per the Everglades Foundation. 

But the project, which includes the reservoir, which will hold the water, and the stormwater treatment center, where the water will be cleaned, is far from completion. 

Work on the stormwater treatment area began in 2020 and should finish by 2023, according to the South Florida Water Management District. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building the reservoir, and experts expect its completion around 2029. A Governor's Office spokesperson noted that the Army Corps of Engineers recently awarded a second contract for construction of the foundation for the reservoir's walls. 

Environmental activists, like Sierra Club Florida senior organizing manager Cris Costello, have criticized the strategy. They say the project is wrongly presented as the "end-all, be-all" for Everglades restoration. 

The only way to thoroughly clean the water from Lake Okeechobee and restore the Everglades, Costello said, is to "repurpose and restore some of the land now planted in sugarcane for water treatment." Without that, the reservoir will have many of the same problems it purports to solve. 

"The reservoir that DeSantis has hung his hat on is not true Everglades restoration," she said. "It is yet another project to mitigate the failure to restore the Everglades. It will be yet another source of nutrient pollution."

Our promise ruling 

The reservoir's components can be broken into two parts, the state stormwater treatment area and the federal government's construction of the reservoir. The state has done almost all it can on its side of the process — construction has begun on the stormwater treatment area during DeSantis' tenure. That fits our definition of Compromise.

Our Sources

Video interview with Cris Costello, Sierra Club Florida's senior organizing manager, September 22, 2022

Phone interview with Anna Upton, chief executive officer of the Everglades Trust, September 28, 2022

Florida Senate, SB 10, Filed January 26, 2017

Florida Senate, SB 10 Summary Analysis, Dated May 19, 2017

Office of the Governor, Governor Ron DeSantis Announces Major Water Policy Reforms, January 10, 2019

Everglades Foundation, 8 things to know about the EAA Reservoir

South Florida Water Management District, Progress Continues on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project

Email interview, Jeremy Redfern, deputy press secretary, Executive Office of the Governor, Oct. 14, 2022

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