Lake Okeechobee, located in central Florida, is one of the most important resources of the state, providing agricultural and urban water supply, flood protection, recreation and ecological habitat to many diverse species of plants and animals. Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater body within the contiguous United States and supports a valuable commercial and recreational fishery. With an average depth of only 2.7 meters (8.9 ft), it has a surface area of 669 square miles and an estimated maximum storage capacity of 1.05 trillion gallons. The lake's drainage basin covers more than 4,600 square miles.
Land use development (primarily agricultural) and hydrologic changes (more efficient drainage of stormwater) in the 39 predominately agricultural watersheds surrounding Lake Okeechobee contributed to a serious decline in lake and downstream water quality, affecting most flora and fauna communities, and causing substantial blue-green algal blooms during the mid-1980s. The activities in the contributing basins have significantly impacted the ecological condition of the lake, with phosphorus as the main contributor.
Best Management Practices (BMPs) and regulatory programs have been implemented over the past 28 years to reduce in-lake phosphorus loads. The collective effect of these management programs initially led to a decrease in the external phosphorus load to Lake Okeechobee, especially in the early to mid-1990s. However, the target values identified by water quality modeling efforts conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s have not been met.
An in-lake phosphorus concentration goal of 40 ppb was developed in the early 1980s and legally mandated in the Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan (SWIM) in Sections 373.451 and 373.4595 of the Florida Statutes. In 2001, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) established a Total Maximum Daily Load for Lake Okeechobee of 140 metric tons per year of total phosphorus from all sources, including atmospheric deposition. The 1995 through 2000 average total phosphorus load to the Lake from all sources, including atmospheric deposition, was 573 metric tons per year. Thus, the overall load reduction goal for the lake is 433 metric tons/year, based on the referenced five-year average load, or 75 percent. It became apparent that the existing programs, by themselves, would not be sufficient to achieve the required in-lake concentration or the proposed Total Maximum Daily Load and would need to be supplemented by other programs in the watershed.
The 2000 Florida Legislature passed the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act (Chapter 00-130, Laws of Florida) to establish a restoration and protection program of the Lake. Some of the elements specifically required by the legislation include a formal Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan, annual reports and implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Construction Project.
The Lake Okeechobee Protection Act defined Phase I of the Lake Okeechobee Construction Project as those project features designed to improve the hydrology and water quality of Lake Okeechobee and downstream receiving waters, consistent with the recommendations included in the South Florida Ecosystem Working Group's Lake Okeechobee Action Plan. Phase I of the Lake Okeechobee Construction Project includes projects identified as the Lake Okeechobee Water Retention Phosphorus Removal Critical Project that was authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1996. These include the isolated wetlands restoration project and the construction of two stormwater treatment and detention facilities in the priority basins. Phase I also includes the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan's (CERP) project for the Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough Reservoir-assisted Stormwater Treatment Area.
The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project will reduce phosphorus loading to Lake Okeechobee, attenuate peak flows from the watershed, provide more natural water levels and restore wetland habitat. This will be accomplished through: a reservoir in the lower Kissimmee Basin; a reservoir and STA in the Taylor Creek/Nubbin Slough Basin; smaller Reservoir-Assisted Stormwater Treatment Areas (RASTAs) and restoration of isolated wetlands; and removal of 150 tons of phosphorus from 10 miles of primary tributary canals.
Nestled between Okeechobee County's magnificent live oak trees and other lush, native flora and fauna, the Taylor Creek Reservoir project will reduce harmful nutrients from entering Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding coastal estuaries. The reservoir is an artificial lake that will be used for both the storage and regulation of water.
Before construction can begin and to gather more detailed information, preliminary design work is being conducted through the use of test cells, or pilot versions of the full project. The test cells will be approximately 500 square feet and will be filled to a water depth of 18 feet – the equivalent to 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The test cells will allow water managers to analyze onsite materials and different construction methods to determine the most efficient reservoir design. Seepage rates, or the loss of water out of the structure, from the test cells will also be monitored to help the design team create an effective seepage control system for the reservoir.
Ultimately, the Taylor Creek reservoir will be responsible for storing about 10.4 billion gallons of stormwater – enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool almost 16,000 times over – before treatment in a Stormwater Treatment Area to improve water quality.
Associated with the Taylor Creek reservoir is the Taylor Creek STA. Outlined by a narrow shell rock access road, the marshy 190-acre strip of land running parallel to Taylor Creek is otherwise almost indistinguishable from its natural surroundings.
But the Taylor Creek Stormwater Treatment Area, or STA, is doing something that sets it apart – removing phosphorus from water headed to Lake Okeechobee.
The stormwater treatment area is east of Taylor Creek on a portion of publicly held land previously known as the Grassy Island Ranch in Okeechobee County. The design diverts about 10 percent of Taylor Creek's water flow into the stormwater treatment area where it travels 1.6 miles before being returned to the creek. Along the way, aquatic plants absorb phosphorus from the water.
There are several stormwater treatment areas in South Florida working to remove phosphorus from surface water south of Lake Okeechobee, but the Taylor Creek STA is the first built to remove phosphorus from water flowing into the lake.
Water pumped from the creek into the northern end of the STA then spreads southward in a sheet flow that follows a gentle, sloping grade. There's enough elevation change that pumps aren't needed to push the water back into the creek at the lower end, although gates can be used to hold water in the stormwater treatment area if it's required.
Preserving the natural beauty of the area was a priority during STA construction so it was designed to include an existing stand of ancient cypress trees. Native wildlife species are also thriving in the area.
For More Information:
Call the District office at (561) 686-8800 X6640
- The property is located on Highway 441, 4.2 miles north of State Road 70 in Okeechobee City. A parking area on the west side of Highway 441 is the trailhead to the area.