Monday, August 6, 2018

Sierra Club's Comments on the Draft EIS for SFWMD's EAA Reservoir plan

On July 24, 2018, Sierra Club, along with Friends of the Everglades and Bullsugar Alliance, submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the SFWMD Section 203 EAA Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) study. Click here for a pdf of our comment letter to USACE. Below, is what we said.

Sawgrass prairies in the central Everglades/ Photo Credit: Mac Stone

July 24, 2018
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Jacksonville District

RE:  Comments on the Draft EIS for the SFWMD Section 203 EAA Reservoir/STA Study

On behalf of Sierra Club, Friends of the Everglades, and Bullsugar Alliance, we submit the following comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Section 203 Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) study.

Our organizations believe the EAA Reservoir is an integral component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that, if adequately planned, designed and constructed, can help solve South Florida’s ongoing water crisis and restore the globally unique and invaluable Everglades ecosystem, including Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. To that end, we desire to support and advance an EAA Reservoir project that provides the long-term ecosystem restoration benefits that both people and the natural system need, especially in light of the challenges South Florida faces with sea level rise and other climate changes, and that meets, with greater certainty, all applicable water quality standards. We also want to support a restoration project that does not pose unnecessary risk to the people and properties in and near the EAA and downstream of the project area.

We offer the comments below with the goal of seeing the SFWMD recommended plan (Alternative C240A) improved.  Our comments are meant to address our concerns; they also echo a number of the concerns expressed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (ASA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in their May 2018 Review Assessment of the SFWMD’s recommended plan as described in their Section 203 Post Authorization Change Report (PACR), Integrated Feasibility Study and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (March 2018, amended May 2018):

1.      When the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 10 (SB 10) in 2017 (Chapter 2017-010, Florida Laws), it was not its intent to take away the ability for SFWMD to analyze alternatives with a larger land footprint. SB 10 did not prohibit the modeling of project alternatives with private lands from owners that at the time of SFWMD’s scoping phase had expressed no interest to sell or swap lands.  Therefore, other possible alternatives should be evaluated as they might produce a project that is more economically feasible, safer, carries less uncertainty in cost and benefits, and provides greater ecological benefits. It is in the public interest, and certainly in the federal interest, to study the feasibility of other less land-restricted alternatives.

2.      The study should include the feasibility of alternatives with reservoir options that are between six (6) and twelve (12) feet in water depth (depths that had been proposed in in 2000 and 2006) and that provide a minimum 240,000 acre-feet of water storage.

3.      There is no legitimate reason to limit the feasibility study to alternatives within lands in state ownership in the A-1 and A-2 parcels and just west of A-2; nothing, including the removal of the eminent domain option in SB 10, imposed such a limitation. The study was overly restrictive in assuming that none of the current private landowners, in areas that could provide a more optimal footprint, would be willing to sell or swap land by the time the project is ready for the Pre-Construction Engineering and Design (PED) phase.  Economics, politics, and other factors could motivate some of them to re-consider and sell or swap their lands with other state-owned land holdings. For instance, the state currently leases several thousand acres of land within or near the EAA with soils that are favorable to agriculture. It is premature to assume that no additional land can be acquired while the project is in the planning phase.

4.      The SFWMD’s work that led to the 2006 Revised Draft Integrated Project Implementation Report (PIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoirs project, which had recommended a 12-ft deep reservoir, should be considered as an alternative.

5.      All alternatives presented in the SFWMD feasibility study should include sufficient land to treat water to meet applicable water quality standards with a high degree of certainty. We share the concern stated in the ASA Review Assessment that the proposed project “poses a significantly high risk in feasibility, design, and construction in terms of cost and performance of a water quality treatment facility. This poses a significant risk that once constructed, the flows into the Everglades from this project will not meet water quality standards, and the project flows will be reduced significantly to meet those standards”.

6.      At this time we agree with the SFWMD decision to not re-purpose the existing A-1 Flow Equalization Basin (FEB) into either a reservoir or an STA as part of their recommended plan.  Based on its current performance, the A-1 FEB is an important component of the Restoration Strategies Regional Water Quality Plan that is already operational.  Meeting the Water Quality Based Effluent Limit (WQBEL) of the EAA STAs is of the utmost importance and there is land, other than the A-1, that should be utilized.

7.      In the draft EIS and the SFWMD Section 203 report, the terms “CERP goal(s)” and “restoration target(s)” are referenced often to state how well the SFWMD recommended plan achieves or approaches them. These terms should be better explained for the benefit of a wide range of stakeholders, including decision makers, who may not be familiar with the technical aspects of how CERP is implemented and evaluated.  If these numerical goals and targets are not clearly defined in the CERP Yellow Book, then the EIS needs to clearly articulate how and when these goals and targets were defined (including appropriate document references). It should also be clearer for the benefit of all stakeholders whether these goals and targets represent “interim” values versus final values.

8.      We agree with the USACE statement that “CERP identifies capacity for 360,000 acres [ft] of storage south of Lake Okeechobee, for Component G. Considering anything short of 360,000 acre [ft] storage option a final action could limit achievement of CERP goals related to Component G” (Section 3.1, draft EIS). As referenced in the draft EIS, the SFWMD Section 203 report has stated that its preferred alternative is “the final step,” instead of “the next increment,” towards implementation of Component G. Sierra Club agrees that the SFWMD recommended plan should not be considered the final increment of surface storage within the EAA.

9.      It is not clear in the draft EIS, nor in the SFWMD Section 203 report, what the basis for SFWMD’s assertion is that their preferred alternative is also the final implementation of the following CERP components. Clarification is needed with supporting details:
§  Flow to Northwest and Central WCA 3A (Component II)
§  Environmental Water Supply Deliveries to the St. Lucie Estuary (Component C)
§  Environmental Water Supply Deliveries to the Caloosahatchee Estuary (Component E)

10.  We are pleased to see that the SFWMD’s recommended plan provides a significant improvement of freshwater flows to the Everglades, above what CEPP was scheduled to provide, particularly during the dry season, from an average of approximately 210,000 ac-ft to 370,000 ac-ft annually.

11.  The draft EIS states that, based on modeling with the 41-year period of record (1965-2005), the SFWMD preferred alternative (C240A) “meets” the CERP goal for average annual flows to the central Everglades. As stated, this is a great concern as this erroneously implies that the approximate 370,000 ac-ft increase in average annual flows to the central Everglades (via the C240A alternative) will be enough to meet the freshwater needs of South Florida’s ecosystems. The 2014 CEPP PIR stated that since the formulation of CERP, published studies “estimate that the northern inflow to the Everglades was an average of two million acre-feet (ac-ft) annually” (pg.3-3). The 2014 CEPP PIR (pg. 3-9) also states that “new science demonstrates that the need for flows passing through EAA is even higher than envisioned in CERP. This suggests that storage greater than 360,000 ac-ft, and necessary treatment, is likely needed if CERP goals and objectives are going to be fully achieved.”  Amplifying this concern is the fact that the modeling performed by SFWMD did not take into account the greater freshwater flows that will be needed to cope with climate changes already taking place, and accelerating, including sea level rise.

12.  SB 10 had been introduced and passed in recognition that high-volume freshwater discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries must be resolved. Therefore, project alternatives should provide significantly more reductions of these high-volume discharges above what the previously authorized CEPP and other authorized projects will provide (also referred to as Future Without, or FWO).  Based on the information presented in Sections 3 and 4 of the draft EIS, the SFWMD C240A alternative, while it provides some added relief to both estuaries, the reductions are relatively minor in comparison to those provided by already authorized projects. To re-establish stable health to these estuaries more significant high-volume discharge reductions are needed.  For instance, as noted in the model output figure below for the Caloosahatchee estuary, the high-volume discharges (with mean monthly flows above 2800 cfs) are only reduced by 9 months beyond the 22 months anticipated with CEPP and other authorized projects (FWO) (Figures 3-3, Tables 3-7 and 4-1, draft EIS). This still leaves 61 months of harmful discharges within the 41-yr period record. Again, while any relief to the estuaries is welcomed, project alternatives that provide higher benefits to the estuaries are needed.


13.  The draft EIS does not clearly indicate to stakeholders what percentages related to reducing damaging discharges to the northern estuaries are benefits that were already predicted to be realized by CEPP versus those gained by SFWMD’s recommended plan.  The EIS should not make this ambiguous, particularly to the decision makers that need to evaluate the lift the recommended plan would provide. For instance, the draft EIS states (pg. 4-1)  “compared to the No Action Alternative, the Recommended Plan provides an overall 55% reduction in discharge volumes and a 63% reduction in the number of discharge events to the Northern Estuaries from Lake Okeechobee, in conjunction with other authorized projects.” For clarity and transparency, the report needs to include the portions of those percentages that are being realized by the recommended plan.

14.  According the ASA Review Assessment of SFWMD’s Section 203 report, the USACE, by May 2018, was scheduled to complete a climate change analysis required for feasibility studies in accordance with USACE policies. The results of that analysis, and the impacts to project benefits and the cost of SFWMD’s recommended plan, need to be included in the EIS.

15.  According to the draft EIS, SFWMD’s recommended plan provides only minor benefits to nearshore Florida Bay (via Taylor Slough). This again highlights the need for alternatives that more meaningfully improve hypersalinity conditions in Florida Bay.

16.  We agree with the concerns raised in the ASA Review Assessment in regards to analysis of potential failure modes, consequences of failure/life loss, and seepage analysis. These types of analyses are critical to ensure the stated ecological benefits of this project will be fully realized, to reduce risk in project costs, and to ensure the project is properly designed for the safety of people and property within and near the EAA and downstream of the project. According to the ASA report:  “USACE has identified that there is significant risk that the 34% cost contingency currently in the cost estimate will not cover the additional cost associated with the likely design changes required to meet all standards after the proper analysis is completed… [USACE] identifies the submitted SFWMD recommended “tentatively selected plan” as presenting a “high” implementation and cost growth risk.” This analysis should not be left to the PED phase due to the stated high risk that the estimated project cost contingency may not be enough.

17.  The timeframe provided to external agencies for the Agency Technical Review (ATR) was extremely tight and particularly unfair to the local government agencies within the study area that were invited to participate. It is our understanding that the ATR kick off meeting was held Friday, February 16, 2018, just before the President’s Day holiday, and that participants were asked to provide written comments by noon on Monday, February 26, 2018 (five business days later). This likely explains why only one county (Broward) provided written comments. In fact, in their comments Broward County (Carolina Maran) stated that “the established time frame was insufficient to provide the extensive review required for this type of document.”  Given the importance of this project to South Florida, adequate time should have been allocated to allow for careful review of the draft report and for meaningful input before SFWMD issued their final Section 203 report.

18.  While public scoping meetings were held in later 2017 by SFWMD in West Palm Beach and Clewiston, they were inadequate in scope and timing.  In addition, the SFWMD was repeatedly unresponsive to stakeholder information requests and questions. For example, Sierra Club submitted written scoping comments and questions to SFWMD on: November 22, 2017; February 9, 2018; February 22, 2018; and February 29, 2018 but received no responses. Please also note that the SFWMD neither included Sierra Club’s pertinent correspondence nor addressed our questions and comments within their Section 2013 PACR report. 

19.  Neither SFWMD nor USACE provided meaningful and accessible NEPA-compliant in-person public participation in the stakeholder process to all those that stand to benefit, or be impacted, by this project. While public meetings were held in West Palm Beach, Clewiston, Fort Myers, and Stuart, both agencies failed to provide any public participation opportunities south of the reservoir project where restored water flows are intended to flow.  In particular, residents of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties (where Everglades National Park and Florida Bay are located) were not afforded equal representation and equal opportunity for public engagement. This fact should be acknowledged in the EIS. The Southeast Florida region experiences significant traffic congestion during the times that SFWMD and USACE conducted its public hearings; as a result, hosting meetings in just the northern-most part of the project area was a barrier to public engagement that should have been avoided. We raised this concern several times because webcast recordings and SFWMD Governing Board meetings did not provide the kind of accessible, quality and open public engagement that others in the northern parts of the project area were afforded.

The above list is not a comprehensive coverage of our concerns but we look forward to providing additional comments on an ongoing basis as the process proceeds.  Thank you for the opportunity to provide these comments.

Sincerely,

Diana Umpierre
Organizing Representative, Sierra Club

Alan Farago
Vice President - Conservation, Friends of the Everglades

Alex Gillen
Policy Director, Bullsugar Alliance