South Florida’s rocky reservoir history doesn’t stop new water storage proposal

One unfinished South Florida reservoir collected more taxpayer money – nearly $280 million – than water.

Another $217 million reservoir has plenty of water, but not the pumps needed to make use of it.

Despite those reservoirs already costing South Florida taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars combined, the push is on to build a third reservoir, expected to cost more than $300 million.

Storing stormwater now drained out to sea has long been billed as the solution to South Florida water supply problems. But actually getting reservoirs built and functional remains an elusive – and expensive – goal.

Backers of the new reservoir proposal in Palm Beach County contend it offers a unique opportunity to boost regional water supplies. It would provide an alternative water supply needed for new growth, said project consultant John “Woody” Wodraska.

“It helps the environment. It gives … flexibility from a water supply standpoint,” said Wodraska, former head of the South Florida Water Management District.

That’s similar to the sales pitch used for the other two reservoirs, also in Palm Beach County, that ended up sidetracked by changing political winds and funding problems. South Florida keeps sinking too much money into reservoirs when it should be restoring wetlands and requiring more conservation, said Drew Martin, of the Sierra Club.

“You are basically buying a very expensive solution,” Martin said. “The cheaper solution is called conservation.”

South Florida averages more annual rainfall than Seattle, but much of that water gets drained out to sea to avoid swamping farms and towns built on what used to be the Everglades or other wetlands.

An Everglades restoration plan approved in 2000 includes building a series of reservoirs that would hold onto more water for both the environment and growing communities.

“Storage is the key to an awful lot of our problems,” said Pete Quasius of the Collier County Audubon Society, on Florida’s West Coast. “We need to look at storage, storage, storage.”

Creating that water storage remains a key shortcoming of Everglades restoration efforts.

South Florida reservoir projects include:

The Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir in southwestern Palm Beach County was intended to become a 16,700 acre, 62 billion gallon water storage facility to supplement water supplies. The South Florida Water Management District in 2008 opted to stop construction and shelve the project after taxpayers had already invested nearly $280 million.

The district initially blamed the decision to stop mid-construction on a longstanding lawsuit from environmental groups over how to divvy up the water.

But just a few weeks later, the district and Gov. Charlie Crist announced a bid to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. land for Everglades restoration. That ended up changing the timetable and locations of water storage efforts, which have yet to be resolved.

The L-8 Reservoir built from old rock mines at Palm Beach Aggregates, west of Royal Palm Beach, was intended to store water to replenish the Loxahatchee River and supplement community drinking water supplies.

The district’s 15 billion gallon, $217 million reservoir was completed in 2008, but it still doesn’t include $60 million pumps needed to deliver the water as planned. The district blames water quality problems in the reservoir on a lack of pumps to help circulate the water.

The new reservoir could be built alongside the L-8 Reservoir at Palm Beach Aggregates, collecting stormwater that now drains out to sea through the C-51 canal.

The canal that stretches through West Palm Beach dumps about 217 million gallons of water a day into the Lake Worth Lagoon, washing pollutants in to the lagoon and wasting water that could supplement community supplies.

A new reservoir could reduce the dumping into the lagoon and during droughts provide about 185 million gallons of water a day to restock drinking water well fields in Palm, Broward and eventually Miami-Dade counties, according to district estimates.

The water could be moved south through canals operated by the Lake Worth Drainage District and the cost could end up getting tacked onto South Florida water bills.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus questions the potential cost of building another reservoir. She said better use should be made of the existing reservoir.

“I have serious reservations about it,” Marcus said. “You already have a pit out there that doesn’t seem to be working. … There are other options out there that I think ought to be considered.”

An updated cost estimate for the new reservoir is expected soon. Deciding whether to move forward requires determining how to pay for it and how to divvy up the water.

“We will just need to have those debates,” said Melissa Meeker, district executive director., 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews