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Irma is long gone, but South Florida's watery wilderness is still feeling the pain

Jenny Staletovich, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

But Verrastro said that even when all the storage components now included in restoration efforts are built, there will still be times when the system has too much water, like during Hurricane Irma. That's when the wells would be used.

The number of wells has not yet been determined, but the district will likely run models on the effects of about 30 in clusters around canals that discharge into the lake, he said. Water would be pumped into the cavernous boulder zone beneath the aquifer that provides drinking water. It can stay there for hundreds of years before flowing underground into the deep ocean, he said.

In 2015, the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers killed and burned 50 to 100 acres of cattails in Cochran's Pass on Lake Okeechobee's west side as part of a joint effort to manage the invasive plants. There were no burns in 2016.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed the wells from their plan this year, saying too many questions remain, prompting the district governing board to come up with its own plan for the injection wells now on the table.

Capp also worries that the wells will become a permanent fix, rather than a temporary patch, and pre-empt work that could ultimately be more beneficial to an ecosystem that most of the time desperately needs more freshwater. That's particularly true as sea-rise risks worsen saltwater intrusion in South Florida's shallow drinking-water aquifer.

"What opportunities are we missing when we invest our money in deep injection wells instead of ecosystem restoration?" she said.

 

There's also one more piece of the puzzle that needs to be completed to ease the high water: a 2-mile bridge under construction along the Tamiami Trail. While it is three counties away from the lake, the bridge will unplug a crucial drain in the Everglades system, allowing water from the conservation areas to stream south into the watery marshes in Everglades National Park and out to Florida Bay.

"What you're seeing in the lake is bad. What you're seeing in the water conservation areas is horrible," Gray said. "In the lake we see how it's going to transition out, but in the water conservation areas, the inundation is historic."

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