Photo: SFWMD Board Member, Jay Steinle, speaks at CEPP North groundbreaking event May 18, 2023
Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) represents the core of Everglades restoration.
You’ve probably heard us talk about CERP a time or two. You might even have wondered what those four letters stand for. CERP, or the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, is a massive ecosystem restoration project directed at reviving America’s struggling Everglades and rehydrating the River of Grass, the historic flow path from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
It’s a huge part of solving south Florida’s water-quality crisis, and it addresses many troubles our waterways face today as a result of a manipulated Everglades system. Well, if you want to get to the heart of CERP, which includes 68 infrastructure projects from the Kissimmee River down to Florida Bay, you’ve really got to explore CEPP (really, more acronyms?? Don’t worry, there’s no quiz at the end).
CEPP, or the Central Everglades Planning Project, is the geographic middle part of CERP. It’s the portion designed to reconnect Lake Okeechobee to the central Everglades, and it’s really about three key things: water storage, water treatment, and water conveyance.
What is the Central Everglades Planning Project?
According to the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, who share the authority in completing Everglades restoration, CEPP encompasses a “vast majority of the remaining natural area of the Everglades, which continues to decline in ecological health. The project is designed to send an additional annual average of approximately 370,000 acre-feet of new water south to the Everglades.”
Due to the development of Florida a century ago, the modern Everglades only receives about a third of its historic southerly flow of water from Lake Okeechobee. The lake and northern Everglades were dammed, ditched, and diked in the early 1900’s, cutting off that natural flow of water. Now, the water that once flowed south either holds in the lake or is all-too-often redirected through damaging discharges to the east and west coasts.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
So, that 370,000 acre-feet of annual “new water” just refers to a significant restoration of the now-restricted flow south. For perspective, 370,000 acre-feet of water would cover 580 square miles (about the size of the city of Houston) at a depth of one foot.
That’s 120 billion gallons to quench the thirst of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet—it’s also a massive amount of water that would no longer threaten the coasts with harmful discharges that wreak havoc on our communities.
The goal of CEPP is to “capture water lost to tide and re-direct water flow south.” To do that, the project focuses restoration on “more natural flows into and through the central and southern Everglades, restoring more natural water flow, depth, and durations into and within the central Everglades.”
To mimic the sheet flow of water that earned the Everglades the nickname, River of Grass, CEPP will institute a series of infrastructure projects that increase the capacity to store, treat, and convey water to target those more natural flows.
In its natural state, Lake Okeechobee’s southern banks would overflow to feed the Everglades flow path. The ebb and flow of the lake would follow a seasonal schedule, filling up throughout the rainy summer months and overflowing slowly throughout the dry winter season.
Now that it’s been completely diked, however, the lake itself operates more as a storage reservoir than as a natural headwater. Its southern banks can no longer freely overflow due to communities that occupy where those waters once rolled over.
When summer rains fill the lake above its prescribed schedule, water managers must figure out what to do with that excess water in the lake. And with very limited capacity or infrastructure to release it south, unfortunately that water is all-too-often “lost to tide” through harmful discharges to the coasts.
To give water managers more flexibility with how to maneuver water in the lake and keep the system healthy, we now need increased storage capacity south of those communities, where water can be relieved from the lake when necessary, held, and distributed south based on more natural timing.
Currently, there are large, shallow wetlands known as Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) that represent the extent of storage. With CEPP, new infrastructure projects will enable major improvements in storage capacity, most notably through a project known as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.
The EAA Reservoir is often referred to as the crown jewel of Everglades restoration because it 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.
The reservoir, expected to be completed by 2030, will cover 10,500 acres and hold water to a depth of 20 feet for a total capacity of 240,000 acre-feet.
It will also have a robust water-cleansing component made up of a 6,500-acre Stormwater Treatment Area (STA). Components like STAs fulfill the second phase of restoration’s effort to re-establish the natural Everglades system: treatment.
To prevent damage to the overall ecosystem, water has to be cleaned before it can be sent south through the Everglades. The water from Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades Agricultural Area basin contains high levels of nutrient pollution caused by excess Nitrogen and Phosphorus. Typically, that cleaning, or treatment, is done through STAs.
A Stormwater Treatment Area is a system of man-made filter marshes that uses natural aquatic vegetation to filter out pollutants, like excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Those excess nutrients can seriously disrupt the balance of growth in the Everglades.
An abundance of Phosphorus pollution in the runoff coming out of the EAA in the 1990’s radically shifted the landscape of portions of the Everglades, as it allowed sawgrass and cattails to grow out of control, making the wetlands inhospitable for birds and fish and other wildlife. That’s why now, there are over 60k acres of STAs intended to clean the water bound for the Everglades.
And as CEPP introduces new infrastructure to send more water south, the need for more treatment capacity increases proportionally. So, projects like the EAA Reservoir will incorporate additional STA components.
STAs aren’t perfect though. They can only uptake a finite amount of nutrients from the water, so if the water is heavily polluted coming in (which it often is), then some level of excess nutrients will remain on the other side.
They’re also a living ecosystem and can be quite sensitive. Maintaining their health and ability to properly function is a delicate balancing act based on timing, water depths, and nutrient concentrations.
Unfortunately, sometimes individual STAs have to be shut down temporarily to allow recovery for the plants, thereby restricting our ability to move important water south to the Everglades.
So, improving and maximizing our treatment capabilities is really important to minimizing bottlenecks that prevent us from sending critical water south.
The final component to moving more beneficial water south is the actual moving part—the conveyance, or transport, that is. Conveyance utilizes canals, levees, and pumps, etc. to get the water from points A (Lake Okeechobee) through Z (Everglades), which no longer follows a very direct path and features a variety of physical barriers along the way.
Through adding new infrastructure, upgrading old, and reconfiguring the routing of water south, CEPP will improve conveyance to allow more natural movement and timing of water through the system. CEPP features projects that increase the capacity of pumps, backfill canal sections, and remove old roadbeds in order to more effectively distribute water south.
Unfortunately, after decades of neglect, our treasured Everglades is being forced to undergo some serious reconstructive surgery. It’s a lengthy process that involves one of the most intense environmental redesigns ever, but on the other end awaits a healthier, stronger, more capable overall ecosystem.
At the heart of that process is CEPP. The Everglades might not ever look like it did a hundred years ago, but by increasing storage, treatment, and conveyance capacities into and within the Central and Southern Everglades, CEPP will help an American icon get back a little closer to its former glory.