Posted on September 28, 2021
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has awarded the first contract to build the EAA reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to curb harmful discharges to the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
A $79.8 million contract for construction on the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir was finalized Thursday with Phillips and Jordan Inc., a Tennessee-based company, the Corps announced Friday.
The money will fund over 7 miles of canals in Belle Glade and a maintenance road with benches between the canals, according to the federal agency. This portion of the reservoir project is slated to be completed by September 2023.
The contract comes nearly a month after three sugar-farming companies filed separate but similar lawsuits over the EAA reservoir in August. The dispute is over the amount of irrigation water they’re allowed to take from Lake O — water that historically flowed south to replenish the thirsty Everglades.
U.S. Sugar Corp., Okeelanta Corp. (Florida Crystals) and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative filed suit Aug. 26 against the Corps, claiming the reservoir design “unlawfully ignored” federal law by cutting the amount of irrigation water farmers can take from the lake.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA) promised farmers a certain amount of irrigation water from Lake O, referred to as the “savings clause.”
Environmental groups across South Florida fear the lawsuit could divert federal resources away from Corps’ efforts on the project. The lawsuits aren’t currently delaying construction, Col. James Booth, the Corps’ Florida commander for the Jacksonville district, told TCPalm Friday.
“We have no scheduled changes that we plan on implementing at this point in time,” Booth said. “We’re proceeding as scheduled.”
EAA reservoir work starts in November
Phillip and Jordans’ contract is the first of what could be several to build the 10,500-acre, 78.2 billion gallon reservoir, which combined with other projects is estimated to alleviate as much as 63% of Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
For scale, the EAA reservoir area could fit the cities of Stuart and Fort Myers within its boundaries, according to Booth. Once completed, the reservoir will store about a half-foot of water that otherwise would sit in Lake O.
The company is set to complete safety, traffic and monitoring plans for the reservoir in November, and construction should begin shortly thereafter, Corps spokesperson Erica Skolte told TCPalm.
This first contract will contribute to the estimated $2 billion in federal money being spent to dig the reservoir, according to Booth. Construction is estimated to be completed by 2029.
State water managers in February awarded the final contract for its part in the EAA reservoir project.
The $175 million contract will fund the final construction on three stormwater treatment areas over 6,500 acres. The marshes are about 54 miles southwest of downtown Stuart.
When completed in 2023, the marshes will begin to hold water being pumped in from Lake O to the north, cleaning it and sending it south to the Everglades, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
Florida Senate president called project he voted for in 2017 a ‘mistake’
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson in December called the reservoir a “mistake,” quickly sparking backlash from clean water advocates and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City.
Simpson, a Republican egg farmer from Trilby, advocated instead for more water storage north of Lake O, echoing similar sentiments the chamber and U.S. Sugar Corp. have voiced for years.
Three months later, on the first day of the legislative session, Simpson said the Florida Senate would not hinder progress on the EAA reservoir, after his previous comments criticizing the project cast doubts about its future.
Earlier this month, Simpson officially entered the race to become the state’s next agriculture commissioner after earning an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.