The Palm Beach County Commission decided Tuesday not to put any money now toward a proposal to create a reservoir to provide water for Palm Beach and Broward counties — but also not to pull out of the project altogether.
Although South Florida has endured severe droughts in recent years, utilities in Palm Beach and Broward counties have lent halfhearted, if any, support to a plan that some water officials say would cushion the area against shortages.
Palm Beach County Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet briefed commissioners on the status of the C-51 Reservoir Project, which he characterized as an important plan that faces significant logistical issues.
Beaudet said that the region sorely needs a new source of water, which is available, although the price appears to be high and the technology is yet to be fully proven. He explained that of Florida’s total rainfall, 61 percent is lost to evaporation, 38 percent is lost to tide, and only 1 percent goes to consumptive use.
The 38 percent that goes to tide is lost due to a lack of storage. “We get plenty of rain,” Beaudet said. “It comes in the rainy season. If we could store that water, we would have the answer to our water problems.”
He added that the water lost to tide through the C-51 Canal damages the ecology of the Lake Worth Lagoon. The C-51 Canal and the L-8 Canal have historically worked together to drain water during the wet season and draw water from Lake Okeechobee during the dry season, but drawing water from the lake has become problematic in recent years. Lake levels are at historic lows, and water quality in the lake has deteriorated.
Beaudet said that the area around 20-Mile Bend, where one reservoir exists, has impervious rock to about 60 feet below the ground, where an additional pit could be dug to store water.
“It gives an opportunity to provide some of that storage that we need,” he said.
In 2006, the South Florida Water Management District bought the existing rock pit that had been dug out in the area, now known as the L-8 Reservoir. “That’s a 50,000-acre-foot reservoir,” Beaudet said. “That’s a huge reservoir.”
It was part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to provide water to North County, primarily for the restoration of the Loxahatchee River and charge wells owned by the Seacoast Utility Authority. Beaudet said some people have asserted that the reservoir is a failure, but that is only because it was never completed.
“First of all, there’s still no pumps to pump the water out of the pit and move it to where it needs to be,” he said. “Secondly, there’s no flow ways.”
The main flow way that was designed to move water to the Loxahatchee River was never dug, Beaudet said, adding that the other flow way moves water to the Grassy Waters Preserve and the West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area, which cannot take a lot of water. “You’ve got this beautiful reservoir and no pumps or flow ways to move the water,” he said.
There also is an issue with a buildup of chlorides in the reservoir, most likely due to the inability to move water through it, Beaudet said.
The C-51 Project would be another pit adjacent to the L-8 Reservoir and would be built the same way — mined out, with the owners of the land selling the shell rock, and the pit later being converted to a reservoir.
The reservoir would be about 75,000 acre feet, 50 percent larger than the L-8 Reservoir, and water stored there would be used primarily for southern areas, extending into Broward.
“That water would need to be conveyed to the well fields in south Palm Beach County and farther south to Broward County,” Beaudet said. “That would be done through the Lake Worth Drainage District system of canals. They, for the most part, already exist.”
Issues that Beaudet and other participants in the project are trying to address include timing, water quality, project cost, participation and leadership, he said.
As for timing, not all the water utilities need the additional water as soon as others. “As far as Palm Beach County is concerned, we don’t need this additional water until 2023 or afterward,” Beaudet said.
The project could be hampered by numeric water quality standards being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that could put limitations on the quality of water allowed in canals, as well as Broward County’s ordinance requiring certain water quality standards in its canals.
The cost of the project is estimated at $755 million to $1 billion, which Beaudet said seems like a lot, but if 80 percent of the affected utilities participate, it would be less than half the cost of a reverse osmosis alternative, which will become necessary as existing wells become brackish if they are not charged with fresh water.
Another stumbling block is that of 53 utilities in Palm Beach and Broward counties, only nine have endorsed a memorandum of understanding that was sent out asking for their participation. “With that kind of participation, there is no way we can afford the project,” Beaudet said.
The Lake Worth Drainage District has been taking a lead role in trying to move the project along, but it has been unable to muster widespread support. The South Florida Water Management District has supported the project but has taken a hands-off approach so far, Beaudet said, adding that he thought the SFWMD is the only agency that can move the project forward.
Beaudet recommended that the SFWMD be encouraged to take a leadership role in the project and integrate it into its Lower East Coast Water Supply Plan currently under development.
As far as the county’s participation, Beaudet recommended that the county keep an eye on the plan but not spend anything on it right now. The commissioners agreed with that course of action.