STA project near Lazy 7 expanded to 4,800 acres

Posted 5/10/24

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board moved ahead with plans...

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STA project near Lazy 7 expanded to 4,800 acres


STUART – The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board moved ahead with plans for the Lower Kissimmee Basin Stormwater Treatment Area (LKBSTA) project at their May 9 meeting, but the project could still change.

The  Ecosystems Investment Partners (EIP) project is planned on private land south of State Road 70 and east of the Kissimmee River in Okeechobee County. The plan calls for EIP to build the STA, successfully operate it and then turn it over to SFWMD.

The LKBSTA was initially planned for 3,000 acres, but plans have been expanded to 4,800 acres. The artificial wetlands, which will clean water by sheetflowing it about 18 inches deep through vegetation , is expected to remove 20 to 22 tons of metric phosphorus a year – phosphorus that would otherwise go into Lake Okeechobee.

At the May SFWMD Governing Board meeting at Indian River State College in Stuart, SFWMD Director of Ecosystem Restoration Jennifer Reynolds said the project will help meet the target for nutrient reduction in two basins as well as have ability to treat water from other sources.

The flood control system that allows millions of people to live in South Florida changed the way stormwater moves and increased the nutrient load that winds up in the Big O. Instead of slowly sheetflowing over thousands of acres, water now drains quickly into canals. The faster flow of water means the water is higher in phosphorous, which creates a nutrient load imbalance in Lake Okeechobee.

The TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) is a goal of how much nutrient load can go into the lake and be sustainably incorporated into the ecosystem. That goal for Lake Okeechobee is 140 metric tons of phosphorus per year. That includes 35 metric tons of “atmospheric” phosphorus that enters the lake via direct rainfall.

Reynolds said to meet that goal, on average, they need to reduce the phosphorus load into Lake O by 262 metric tons a year.

Reynolds said the site was chosen because it can treat water from the L-62 canal, which has high phosphorus levels, as well as draw water directly from the Kissimmee River.

Reynolds acknowledged some of the concerns raised by people who live near the project area. With two private airstrips and the Okeechobee County Airport less than 5 miles from the site, pilots have expressed fears about a potential increase in bird strikes, since STAs attract wading birds. Other concerns include seepage, flood insurance costs, and an increase in mosquitoes.

She said some buffer areas have been incorporated into the design.

“Based on input from FAA-certified wildlife biologists, we removed open water areas,” Reynolds explained. “We previously considered some deeper water in a Flow Equalization Basin (FEB), but have removed that because of input from wildlife biologists that open water could attract additional avian species not currently in the project area.

“Our project will not impact the FEMA flood zone maps,” Reynolds said.

“We are working with EIP to make sure they are incorporating seepage management through ground water monitoring,” she said.

A seepage management system ensures the project does not impact adjacent lands ground water level, Reynolds added.

“About a year from now, we will receive expanded design from EIP,” she said. At that time, the governing board will decide to move forward or make changes.

“I don’t think anybody is against clean water,” said Paul Wright. “The STA projects are very good. It’s the location of the STA. 80 percent of the water that is going into the STA is coming out of the river.

“It can be pushed a little bit up the Kissimmee River and you have areas that are unattached to any community,” he suggested.

Caitlyn Newcamp of Audubon Florida said her organization supports the project. She noted the watershed has the highest phosphorus level and has access to water in the dry season to keep STA hydrated.

“We pretty much adjoin the site,” said Jim Reynolds. “I think there is a need for greater public involvement, community involvement and community comment on this project. The last meeting that was held in our community was in August of last year.

“We’re talking about 300 homes. My understanding is you have never done a project right in the middle of long established communities.

“The county commission has told you no, they don’t like this. The FAA has told you it is not a good idea,” he continued. “Put this thing someplace else. It does not belong where you are going to put it.”

He also asked SFWMD to encourage the contractor to have at least two public meetings a year in Okeechobee to update the residents about the project plans.

 Okeechobee County Deputy Manager Richard Reade said the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners “would request this project be located north of our county.”

“The county was not notified or apprised of this expansion until the meeting that was held on May 2,” he said.

Reade said while he has no complaints about SFWMD staff, EIP assured county officials they would be updated regularly and that has not happened.

 “Our county commission has said multiple times we are in no way opposed to STAs, it’s the location of this STAs that is disconcerting to our community,” he said.

He said those supporting the project do not live close to the project area.

stormwater treatment area, STA, kissimmee river, lake okeechobee, nutrient load