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Tempers rise in the Everglades; Ohio dredging costs to rise

It’s no secret the algae blooms that turn waterways into guacamole on portions of Florida’s east and west coasts emanate from harmful discharges coming out of Lake Okeechobee. In another part of the country, deadlines for prohibiting open-lake dumping of dredge materials is approaching in Ohio. Both these issues will impact local marinas and boat dealers, not to mention having a potentially negative effect on boating in those parts of the country.

First, the good news for Florida’s boating scene is that Congress finally authorized building a reservoir that experts contend will contain and reduce harmful discharges that cause serious algae problems. Boaters, anglers, environmentalists, land owners, waterfront businesses and others were celebrating the positive end to what has been a long and contentious battle over the years for lawmakers and environmentalists seeking to reduce the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee. But is the celebration premature?

The festive mood quickly ended when it was learned the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) had hastily approved a sugar-farming lease extension with Florida Crystals Corporation on almost 16,000 acres of the proposed reservoir.

According to Shannon Estenoz, chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation, SFWMD “has been caught locking up 97 percent of the land needed for the reservoir and we can't get it back for years to come," she said in a statement. So, SFWMD invited reporters to the proposed reservoir site to show that work has begun despite extending a lease.

Estenoz fired back that "moving rocks around on a tiny portion of land is not building a reservoir.” She said it was a “stunt for damage control,” that still left questions about possible timetables for building the much-needed reservoir.

Unfortunately, the Florida Legislature approved the reservoir in 2017 and required that farming be permitted on the state-owned site until agriculture becomes incompatible with the reservoir project. So, the SFWMD board could have delayed approving any lease in order to seriously address the compatibility issue. And, while I probably need not point it out, if you don’t recognize it, Florida’s big sugar has a powerful lobby.

In fact, Florida’s Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, who doesn’t take office until January, had called on the Water Management District board to delay any vote on the lease to Florida Crystals Corp. He cited concerns that continued farming on the site could delay reservoir construction. There’s speculation that the board hastened to approve the lease before DeSantis is sworn in.

The great hope for dealers, marina owners, boaters and anglers impacted by the annual green slime is that the 78.2-billion gallon reservoir, if and when completed, along with other Everglades restoration projects, will substantially reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers that feed the two Florida coasts. In the meantime, groups like the Everglades Foundation will remain fully engaged in a push for expedited construction.

Ohio dredging costs likely to rise

It was back in 2015 that Ohio’s lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits dredged materials from harbors or any other navigation maintenance activities to be deposited into Lake Erie. Called “open lake dumping,” it had always been the acceptable disposal method for all uncontaminated dredgings (contaminated materials prohibited.) No more.

The legislation has a 5-year window, requiring an end to all open-lake dumping by July 1, 2020. The impact will be greatest on Ohio’s eight major harbors in the state. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the harbors that require regular dredging. And while recreational boaters enjoy the benefits of those deep water ports and rivers, they are dredged for commercial shipping. Beginning in 2020, all those millions of yards of dredged material will have to be handled in other ways, and it won’t take a degree from Wharton to know the costs to cities and the state will skyrocket.

Now enter all of Ohio’s small boat harbors and marinas along Lake Erie that also require periodic dredging. Until now, those dredged materials were put back in Lake Erie. Dredging was expensive but reasonable given the job. Beginning in 2020, if those materials must be contained on an adjacent land site or trucked out to an upland containment area, dredging costs for marinas could see significant increases.

Is there any silver lining for marinas? Perhaps. Some of the commercial harbors are looking at the feasibility of a dredge-to-soil project. This would include an area that rapidly dewaters the dredged material, and then it would be removed, blended and offered for sale as good topsoil. Other options are the creation of a nearby “marsh land” which would become habitat for plants, animals and birds.

So, while the deadline is still might seem off in the future (19 months), Ohio marina interests should begin to assess the impact, if any, this will have and begin considering long range options. 



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