Okeechobee officials oppose plan for stormwater treatment area

Posted 12/14/23

Okeechobee County officials and residents voiced their opposition to the Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area ...

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Okeechobee officials oppose plan for stormwater treatment area

The Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area (LKBSTA) project is planned east of the Kissimmee River and south of State Road 70
The Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area (LKBSTA) project is planned east of the Kissimmee River and south of State Road 70
Art courtesy EIP

WEST PALM BEACH – Okeechobee County officials and residents voiced their opposition to the Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area (LKBSTA) at the Dec. 14 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board meeting.

LKBSTA has been planned on the east side of the Kissimmee River, just south of State Road 70. The 3,000-acre project will use pumps to intercept water from the L-62 canal and from the Kissimmee River, moving the water through manmade wetlands to remove phosphorus. The treated water will flow from the treatment cells back into river and eventually into Lake Okeechobee.

The project is planned between two airstrip communities – Sunset Strip Airpark and River Oaks -- and less than five miles from the Okeechobee County Airport.

A presentation from Okeechobee County included concerns about potential flooding in the neighboring subdivisions, changes to the flood insurance maps, increase in the danger of bird strikes to airplanes, potential change in the water table and increase in the mosquito population.

Okeechobee County Administrator Deborah Manzo, who is also a licensed pilot, said the LKBSTA does not comply with Okeechobee County land development regulations which restrict projects that would create hazards to the county airport.

“The property is within five miles of the approach to the main runway of the Okeechobee County Airport,” she said. Manzo presented the governing board with documentation from the FAA recommending the STA be located farther away from the airport. She also shared a communication from the Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range stating the proposed project is underneath several of the flight paths currently used by the military for training flights and an increase in birds there would pose a potential hazard to military aircraft.

She also shared a letter from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, urging SFWMD to relocate the project.

During the public comment period, James Madrigal said his tree farm is on the boundary of the project. He said the 30,000 trees on the farm represent an $8 million inventory. He is concerned the project could change the water table in the area.  “If everything doesn’t go just as it’s planned out, it’s going to put me out of business,” he said.

Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief said he is concerned about the lack of transparency. He said he has received conflicting information about the project at different meetings.

“They came to our meeting,” Hazellief said. “They said they are not in the 5-mile radius of the airport. Did you see the map?

“They said ‘we’re not going to store water above ground level.’ We had public meetings where they said ‘we’re going to store it 18-inches above ground.’

“There are so many inconsistencies,” he said.

“They said ‘we’re going to rehydrate the wetlands’ – it’s less than 10% wetlands.

“They said it’s the dairies – we have one dairy in the basin,” he continued, adding that the one remaining dairy does not have runoff unless there is a hurricane.

“Please before you go any further, let’s get to the bottom of this,” said Hazellief.

The governing board took no action on the LKBSTA at the Dec. 14 meeting, but assured Okeechobee officials they would take the concerns into consideration.

Governing Board Member Ben Butler said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FEDP) set the maximum phosphorus target for Lake Okeechobee at 140 metric tons per year, including 35 metric tons of atmospheric phosphorous.

He said the S-154 basin is high in phosphorous, but the trend is improving.

“We had one year with over 140 metric tons of phosphorus out of that single basin in 1983,” he noted. FDEP has set the phosphorus target for the basin at 3 metric tons.

In 2017 thanks to Hurricane Irma, the basin had a lot of flush and contributed about 30 tons of phosphorus to the lake.

The five-year rolling average is around 12 metric tons, he said. “To meet DEP target, we need to reduce phosphorus in that area by 9 metric tons.”

He said they estimate the septic-to-sewer projects to reduce the phosphorus by about two metric tons.  Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) have already helped reduced the phosphorus load and will continue to do so.

“We’ve got a challenge there. This gives me heartburn,” he said. “The district has a process – to put a project in, you have to prove you aren’t going to impact your neighbor. I recognize the need for some kind of project in this area.”

“We’ve got to have some kind of regional project,” said Butler.  

Butler said the Lakeside Ranch STA and the Nubblin Slough STA are improving water quality in other basins in Okeechobee County.

“We’re heard the concerns from Okeechobee County. We know there is something that needs to be done. I think private industry can find a middle ground. We’ve got to make sure some of these major concerns are taken care of,” he continued.

“There’s no perfect situation,” said Bulter. “There’s not going to be a perfect project, but we’ve got to continue to adapt the system to provide those restoration opportunities.

“I’m glad we’re getting these concerns fully out in the open,” Butler said. “Hopefully we can find a middle ground so we can continue to improve the environment, improve the nutrient situation and improve the health of Lake Okeechobee.”

STA, Kissimmee, Okeechobee, Sunset Strip Airpark, River Oaks