Progress at the EAA Reservoir—moving earth to move more water south

January 29, 2021

Had it not been for a unified community a couple of years ago, the landscape at the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir site would look a lot different than it does now. It would still be stuck in the stranglehold of special interests who were quite satisfied with the status quo—much to the detriment of Everglades restoration progress.

Instead, the project’s moving along now—one blast at a time.

What could’ve been.

A shady deal in 2018 would’ve delayed this progress, possibly by years. During a public meeting on November 7, the former South Florida Water Management District governing board granted an eight-year lease extension for sugarcane operations on 15,440 acres of state-owned land—the same land slated for this EAA Reservoir site.

For months, the lease had been negotiated in secret and was added to the agenda at 9pm the night before the meeting. Together with other shocked stakeholders, including Congressman Brian Mast on behalf of Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, we stood before the board and urged them to delay the vote until the public had the opportunity to review the lease. 

They ignored the pleas and unanimously voted to approve it. 

We quickly launched an awareness campaign, “Drain the District, Save the Swamp,” to expose their scheme to the public and demand the resignations of the corrupt board. The unified voices of our supporters and partner conservation groups were heard loud and clear by the incoming administration.

A turning point in restoration.

Two days after Governor Ron DeSantis took office in January 2019, he signed Executive Order 19-12 Achieving More Now For Florida’s Environment, implementing major reforms to ensure the protection of Florida’s environment and water quality. 

His first order of business? Cleaning house at the District. DeSantis immediately called for resignations from the entire SFWMD board and appointed a new governing board that fights on behalf of the public.

The lease was eventually terminated, clearing the way for construction to begin, but it serves as a reminder of the type of schemes that have delayed progress for decades—when the public is aware and gets involved, we have the power to defeat these attempts.

Now, thanks to those united efforts, the land from that lease is bustling with progress—heavy equipment, explosions, and boots on the ground are working to expedite the critical restoration project.

What is the EAA Reservoir?

The EAA Reservoir is only one of the 68 projects laid out in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)—federally approved in 2000—but it’s one that packs a punch.

Made up of a 10,500-acre storage reservoir and 6,500-acre STA, the project will significantly reduce harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by storing and cleaning excess water from the lake before sending it south to the Everglades, where it once flowed naturally and where it’s needed most.

Overall, it’s a massive project in design and build—one that will eventually occupy a footprint the size of Manhattan—but its benefit to the overall system will be equally immense. It’s a key component of the overall restoration plan and provides the greatest relief to the most affected areas, so seeing progress on its construction is exciting.

Construction of the project’s two main components has been divvied up between the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), with the Corps tackling the reservoir and the District spearheading the STA. Due to the enormity of the reservoir—it will hold water up to a depth of 20 feet for a total capacity of 240,000 acre-feet—it’s currently still in the design phase, but construction on the STA is well underway.

How’s the project moving?

Motivated to expedite construction, SFWMD split the STA project into several components and officially broke ground back in April 2020—well ahead of the earliest possible start date under the old district governing board. Since then, progress has been continuing at an explosive pace, blasting about 700 feet of limestone at a time for the inflow/outflow canal and the seepage canal.

The inflow/outflow canal will move water in from Lake O through the Miami and North New River canals, and the seepage canal will help manage seepage to the north, returning lost water back into the STA system.

When complete, the canals will run east to west for four and half miles along the north perimeter of the STA, but construction will require excavation of about 2 million cubic yards and establishment of two levies to run the length of the canals.

Due to the limestone base, once the shallow layer of muck is removed from the surface, excavation starts with powerful blasts to loosen the rock. That loose rock is then removed to dig the canal, crushed, and finally used to form the levies. The levies are then finished with the excavated surface muck and sod to prevent erosion.

It’s an impressive process that’s currently about a quarter complete, with 500,000 cubic yards excavated so far—notable progress for a few months of work.

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Continuing Progress.

The next step in the project is the actual filtration cell (as well as all remaining levees, control structures, and pump stations) for the STA, for which the construction contract will be awarded next month. Construction is expected to begin on those remaining items shortly after the contract is awarded.

The STA is targeted for completion in December 2023—a more palpable date than what could’ve been—and once it’s finished, it will be able to function at limited capacity until the EAA Reservoir comes online.

It’ll take at least a year after construction to build up the STA’s water-cleaning capabilities as the nutrient-consuming vegetation grows in to provide adequate filtration, but water will start moving into the STA as soon as it’s complete, despite the status of the EAA Reservoir.

Despite the distant timelines, the construction progress itself is a huge win. For far too long, these restoration projects have stagnated, so seeing them finally come alive is worth celebrating. Now more than ever, we must continue to advocate for continued progress on critical Everglades restoration projects—our water depends on it.