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SOUTH FLORIDA — The quest for a billion-dollar water storage project to curb harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges and send more freshwater south into the Everglades and Florida Bay took a big step forward last week.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed on Thursday in a letter addressed to the South Florida Water Management District to do its part to expedite and to help fund the project. The agreement came almost a month after a state deadline that was extended due to a request by the federal agency.

“The Corps shares the state’s interest in restoration objectives,” Col. Jason A. Kirk wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to district Executive Director Ernie Marks.

The $1.6 billion project initially championed by state Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, calls for building a 14,000-acre reservoir just south of Lake Okeechobee in an area known as the A-2 Parcel. The reservoir will be 14 feet deep on land currently leased by the state to Florida Crystals, a large sugarcane-growing corporation. It will hold at least roughly 80 billion gallons of freshwater as part of an effort to limit discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The water will be stored there and scrubbed of nutrients before being released into the Everglades and bay, where it’s desperately needed.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency after toxic algae overtook the St. Lucie waterway due to harmful water discharges from the lake. In summer 2015, the bay suffered a massive seagrass die-off during a period of drought that wiped out a documented 22,000 acres in its northeastern portion. Scientists say increasing freshwater flows into the bay could forestall such die-offs.

The reservoir project also spells out securities for Glades County residents who previously said that loss of farmland, such as on the A-2 Parcel, would mean serious struggles for the people living and working there. It calls for job-training programs as well as local infrastructure projects.

Water storage south of the lake has been a component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan overseen by the Corps and district. But the planning phase for it wasn’t set to begin until 2021, according to the CERP’s Integrated Delivery Scheduled.

Funding for the reservoir project calls for the state to pony up $800 million. The other half would come from the feds. However, neither has yet to designate any funds.

“The availability of Corps appropriations for this effort are currently unknown,” Kirk wrote in the letter.

But Kirk said that if the district ultimately accepts working with the Corps that it would look to identify funding opportunities for this project.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, who represents the Florida Keys, told the Free Press in May that funding Corps projects are critical especially for the much-needed reservoir in South Florida.

Corps Communication Director John H. Campbell said the federal agency’s previous delay in meeting the state deadline on the agreement to participate in the project was due to the fact that it needed to review multiple options before deciding how it would move forward with the district.

The next deadline in the state-set timeline is Jan. 8. By that day, the district is to report to the Florida Legislature on the status of the federal-state agreement as well as the district’s ability to obtain lease modifications and acquire private land within the A-2 Parcel.

The district did not return a phone call by press time seeking comment on the story.

bbowden@keysnews.com

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