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Celebrated finish of pump station to divert polluted water from Caloosahatchee to sit idle for now

South Florida Water Management District

A massive pump station to retrieve polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee into the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River is completed — now it will sit idle.

A massive pump station designed to retrieve polluted water just released from Lake Okeechobee into the artificial headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River, then divert it to an 18-square-mile reservoir, has been completed in Hendry County.

It will sit idle for at least a year before the side-by-side-by-side pumps inside a concrete building start siphoning off up to 650,000 gallons per minute of lake water into the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, which is capable of holding 55 billion gallons.

The hope is the water from Lake Okeechobee, polluted with nutrients from large-scale agriculture operations to its north and often rife with blue-green algae, will be filtered by plants in the reservoir to reduce its levels of nitrogen and phosphorus before it's re-released into the fragile Caloosahatchee River watershed.

Higher-ups in the South Florida Water Management District joined federal, state, and local officials on-site in Hendry County recently to celebrate the completion of the pump station, which is one of the largest of its kind in the state.

“Southwest Florida knows how important our water quality is to our way of life, our estuary, and our local economy,” said Chauncey Goss, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. “Once this reservoir comes online, there will be billions of gallons of water storage available that will protect the delicate balance of fresh and saltwater in the Caloosahatchee estuary.”

Because the reservoir is incomplete the pump station will sit idle until later in 2025 — if there are no delays in the complicated creation of a man-made wetland of such a large size.

Polluted water from Okeechobee released into the Caloosahatchee in recent years has been blamed for major downstream outbreaks of blue-green algae, and from time-to-time lesser water-quality problems affecting plants, animals, and recreation possibilities throughout the river’s watershed.

A century ago, self-appointed Everglades water management engineers like Hamilton Disston dredged the Caloosahatchee River, altering its flow forever by connecting it to Lake Okeechobee and upsetting the natural balance of when and where fresh and saltwater mix.

Today's environmental engineers hope that, during the wet season, the reservoir will reduce the amount of harmful water flowing from Lake Okeechobee and thus the risk of environmentally damaging discharges into the estuary.

“Once this reservoir comes online, there will be billions of gallons of water storage available that will protect the delicate balance of fresh and saltwater in the Caloosahatchee estuary.”
Chauncey Goss

During dry periods, when the Caloosahatchee River needs freshwater downstream, it can be released from the reservoir to maintain the proper level of salinity in the estuary, which is essential for the health of aquatic ecosystems and for preventing harmful algal blooms.

The Caloosahatchee Reservoir will include 19 miles of embankments, 15 miles of perimeter canals, and 14 water control structures to move the awaiting water around as needed.

Goss said the reservoir will be a critical component of the overall Everglades restoration, a massive and costly effort that will take decades to complete.

“Projects like these protect our environment and enhance the resiliency of our water resources for decades to come,” Goss said. “Finishing this pump station is a big step forward to making this reservoir a reality."

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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Tom Bayles