The Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday, April 30 directed staff to continue a proposed Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, but to reconsider the use of the Mecca Farms property as an above-ground impoundment.
Commissioners also expressed concern about the cost of the project, which would compete for federal dollars with other important water projects in the state.
County staff, led by Palm Beach County Water Resources Manager Jeremy McBryan, asked commissioners for direction on the project, intended to improve the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of water flows to the northwest fork of the Loxahatchee River and restore hydrologic conditions and connectivity of wetlands and watersheds that form the historic headwaters of the river.
Key features of the proposed project include an above-ground reservoir on the Mecca site, four aquifer storage and recovery wells, and improved connections between the river and the watershed. The project would achieve river restoration flow targets 91 percent of the time in the dry season and 98 percent of the time in wet season.
The estimated cost is $473 million, and design and construction are estimated to require 9 to 15 years. Staff recommended continuing to support state and federal efforts to achieve ecosystem restoration goals for the Loxahatchee River watershed. Staff also communicated key concerns, such as the Mecca reservoir embankment height and questionable assumptions.
Additionally, staff expressed interest in collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to optimize the Mecca reservoir to be more compatible with adjacent lands.
“This is a costly project,” McBryan said. “It will take up to 15 years, depending on the level of funding that is received. That design and construction schedule is assuming authorization and appropriation by the federal government over the next couple of years.”
McBryan said the SFWMD is expediting the design of the Mecca reservoir and has a consent of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which needs to be implemented by 2022.
The Loxahatchee River restoration project was once part of the enormous L8 Reservoir project, which was repurposed in 2012 by the SFWMD to help control stormwater runoff to the stormwater treatment areas at the north end of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Part of the new proposed plan includes directing some of the excess stormwater from the Indian Trail Improvement District northward to the Loxahatchee Slough.
McBryan said residents expressed concern during public hearings over the $200 million estimated cost of the Mecca reservoir.
“Loxahatchee River is one of several Everglades restoration projects that’s going to be competing for both attention and funding over the next several years,” McBryan said.
Commissioner Hal Valeche said that he was concerned about continued funding for the project.
“Is that appropriated all at once, or it that a multi-year thing?” he asked. “The danger, I think, is some projects get started, they get funded in year one, and then the next bill comes around and you’re not in that, so the thing comes to a dead stop.”
McBryan said funding has probably been in lump sums and from a phased approach, depending on what is approved in Washington.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said some Everglades projects have been authorized but not appropriated.
“I’d like to be optimistic, but it’s probably going to be five or six years before we see the funding for that,” McKinlay said, pointing out that the proposed restoration project would cost almost $500 million for a project a quarter the size of the L8 project, which cost less than $300 million.
Jupiter Inlet Colony Vice Mayor Chip Block, chair of the county’s Water Resources Task Force, said the task force at its April meeting recommended making the proposed project more compatible with adjacent lands, and expressed concern over the expense when other solutions might be effective and have less impact on adjacent land.
“The task force expressed a clear preference for a natural flow solution that incorporates a flow way through the conserved lands at Avenir,” Block said. “It is also important to recognize that the SFWMD is under new management. It might be premature to support this fully because the new management of the district might be more enlightened in terms of a natural flow way.”
Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center, said she has been working on Loxahatchee River Restoration Project issues since 2000. In 2005, environmentalists were successful in stopping the Scripps project at Mecca with a lawsuit revolving around water issues there.
“I absolutely support restoration of the river and doing everything we can to expedite it,” Interlandi said. “It has been so long in coming, and we do need to make it happen.”
However, she agreed that a deep-water reservoir and Mecca Farms is out of character for the area. She added that taking out the Mecca proposal would take out $180 million from the project, which might be made up for by local initiatives, such as using Avenir flow ways and other preserved natural areas.
Palm Beach County Vice Mayor Dave Kerner pointed out that a 50-50 cost share with the federal government is enticing, but the river restoration project might lose out in the face of other projects that might be able to demonstrate a more urgent need.
Rich Waleski with Sustainable Palm Beach County said his group supports a natural flow way at Mecca as opposed to an impoundment.
“Natural storage in wetlands systems provides a lot of additional benefits, which enhance water quality, wildlife, public recreation and wetland connectivity with increased habitat in the area,” Waleski said. “Mecca itself is bordered on three sides by wetlands that right now function as natural storage.”
He warned that an above-ground impoundment at Mecca might not have the same kind of support. “One might expect Acreage residents particularly to consider the impoundment to be incompatible with their community, and they’ll probably express concerns about safety, appearance and even property values,” Waleski said.
He added that having natural flow ways through Mecca and Avenir would cost about $28 million as opposed to estimates of between $180 million and $200 million for a Mecca reservoir.
ITID Engineer Jay Foy pointed out that the proposed plan requires agreements with ITID.
“We haven’t been approached institutionally or legally,” Foy said. “Mecca at that high of a reservoir, I’ll just say that levee failure is not an option. It will meet design standards, but storms can exceed design standards… so we have concerns.”
McKinlay pointed out that the Mecca impoundment would be the third above-ground impoundment in her district, the others being the Hoover dike, which the county has had to fight for funding to complete improvements, and the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area levee, which breached after Tropical Storm Isaac and has yet to receive complete funding for improvements.
“My optimism is not high that constructing a third levee at this proportion would be well maintained and funded if repairs were needed,” McKinlay said. “The public safety of my constituents in this particular part of the county is one of my utmost concerns.”
McKinlay made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation to proceed with the restoration project, but to reconsider the Mecca impoundment, which carried 6-0 with Commissioner Robert Weinroth absent.