New Everglades dike called unsafe

BY CURTIS MORGAN, Miami Herald, Sept. 12, 2007

A new reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Everglades restoration has already sprung leaks and is so rife with structural and design flaws that it can't be safely filled, state water manager said Wednesday.

The earthen dike needs at least $13 million in repairs and even then, it won't supply all the water it promised to restore to Ten Mile Creek and the St. Lucie River, according to an independent engineering report released Wednesday by the South Florida Water Management District.

Without the fixes, the dike near Fort Pierce -- like the 70-year-old levee around Lake Okeechobee the Corps is currently repairing -- poses a potential danger to homes that have since been built nearby, said George Horne, a district deputy executive director. In some spots, he said, the levee ringing the 550-acre reservoir is so weak that it could easily be loosened with a penknife.

''You can't consciously fill this reservoir any higher than 22 feet without those repairs,'' Horne said. ``Nobody needs to worry at 22 feet. Beyond that, we have concerns.''

But holding water that low also would badly compromise the intended environmental benefits of the $34 million project, providing only 38 percent of the water it was supposed to deliver. Repairs would improve things, but not completely.

Alan Bugg, chief of construction and operations for the Corps' Jacksonville district, which built the reservoir, said the federal agency was ''absolutely committed'' to fixing the flaws, which he blamed on contractor errors and money.

The Corps had hit its congressional budget cap, Bugg said. ``We can't spend another penny, by statute, at Ten Mile Creek.''

U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Port Charlotte Democrat whose district includes Ten Mile Creek, said he was disappointed by the Corps' oversight and questioned whether the federal agency had ''operated in a vacuum'' in downsizing the reservoir's capacity.

''Now, you're in a situation, unfortunately, where you're trying to put lipstick on a hog,'' he said.

The reservoir and adjacent storm water treatment area, originally approved by Congress in 1996 as part of a $115 million suite of projects, is supposed to divert and cleanse water flowing into the north fork of the St. Lucie River. It is a sensitive coastal estuary that has been hammered by periodic releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee and algae blooms.

Horne described it as the ''keystone'' to a much larger, $1 billion-plus plan to clean up the Indian River Lagoon, a centerpiece of the $14 billion Everglades restoration plan. Unless the reservoir delivers enough water, he said, future projects will likely have to be changed and become more expensive.

It's only the most recent Corps project criticized by the district, which is co-managing Everglades restoration with the federal agency.

Last year, water managers hired BCI Engineering of Lakeland to examine the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and the resulting report, which found the aging levee at high risk of failure, prompted the Corps to reexamine and overhaul its original repair plan.

This time, BCI uncovered numerous deficiencies at Ten Mile Creek, including rainfall runoff eroding embankments and seepage through levee walls -- despite the fact the reservoir nows contains only four feet of water, far short of the 29 feet it's supposed to hold. In addition, there were fuel and engine problems at a pumping station and a leaky pipe that could weaken and undermine the pump house.

The reservoir was designed before the district and Corps adopted new levee standards in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which overwhelmed flood-control structures around New Orleans. The levee designs for much larger water preserves now under construction in western Broward County, for instance, are massive in comparison, with armored walls.

To bring Ten Mile Creek to that level, which the district is recommending, would run at least $13 million and include adding a higher protective wall, reinforcing the existing levee and adding a new center levee as a windbreak to reduce wave damage during storms.

It's unclear when, and if, those fixes can be made. Bugg said the Corps would get more money for the project as part of $2 billion in Everglades funding in a water bill Congress is expected to sign off on soon. But President Bush already has threatened to veto it, calling the bill's $21 billion in nationwide projects excessive.

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