Local News

Wetland cleanup project escapes veto

GLADES COUNTY - Jeff Allen calls himself a private citizen who loves to fish on Lake Okeechobee, but he's also the chairman of a broad-based group that's trying to improve the lake and add recreational opportunities. When Charlie Crist was governor, the state signed an agreement with the Lake Okeechobee Habitat Alliance Inc. to lease and manage more than 2,700 acres of land located at Curry Island, where Fisheating Creek joins Lake Okeechobee. The group's volunteer cadre helped clean up Curry Island of old tires and dumped construction materials and set up wood duck boxes, but to reduce the high nutrient level of creek water before it reaches the lake, they needed a treatment system to suck out the phosphorus and nitrogen. A $2 million hybrid wetland treatment system, which will use aquatic plants in a filtration marsh to do the job, was in danger of being potentially nixed when it ended up last week on a 2013-2014 state budget "turkey" watch list by Florida TaxWatch as part of 107 projects the group wanted Gov. Rick Scott to consider vetoing.
Scott decided to keep it, along with $12,000 the state allocated to help renovate a building donated to the Boys & Girls Club of Highlands County, the second county project to end up on the tax watch list. Allen said he's pleased the project was spared and maintained that the environmental impact of improving Lake Okeechobee is far-reaching: The lake and its wetlands are at the center of a much larger watershed, the Greater Everglades, which stretches from the Kissimmee River through the Everglades and finally into Florida Bay. "This is a small piece of puzzle in the larger one - the Everglades restoration," he said. Allen said he doesn't know when the project will start. The engineering firm, Federico & Lamb, has done similar projects, he said. The project site will be located at the downstream end of the 297,000-acre Fisheating Creek drainage basin on approximately 50 acres in the upland portions of Curry Island. An inflow pump will supply up to 30 cubic feet per second of untreated water from Fisheating Creek into the treatment system, where the aquatic plants will be present. Treated return water from the wetland would be routed to the lake through dispersed overland flow through the Curry Island marsh, which is part of the 2700-acre land leased. Allen said he doesn't know when the project will start. "There is still a permitting process that it will have to go through," he said.