FILE - Gov. Ron DeSantis Everglades

In this Jan. 29, 2019, file photo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about his environmental budget at the Everglades Holiday Park during a new conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(The Center Square) – Site work has begun on the $1.8 billion Everglades Agricultural Association reservoir project’s 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area, a ”critical milestone” in Florida’s plan to restore Everglades water quality and quell toxic algae blooms.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced work began last week on the site in southwest Palm Beach County.

“When I took office, I made expediting the EAA reservoir project a top priority,” DeSantis said. “Beginning construction means we’re a big step closer to moving more clean water south to the Everglades and lessening harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.”

The EAA reservoir is among a suite of Everglades restoration projects approved by state lawmakers in 2017, including three additional above-ground reservoirs.

The federal America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires the 10,000-acre EAA reservoir’s $1.8 billion cost be split between the state and federal government over 10 years.

DeSantis has proposed a four-year, $2.5 billion plan to accelerate the project’s timeline from 10 to within seven years. He requested $625 million in his fiscal year 2020 budget and received $682 million from lawmakers. He asked for $625 million in his fiscal 2021 budget request and received $680 million, pending potential cuts from the COVID-19 emergency.

The stormwater treatment area is projected to be finished by 2023. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will build the reservoir, to be completed by 2028.

“Work has begun on the EAA reservoir project. Its benefits to our estuaries and the Everglades are finally within sight,” SFWMD Chairman Chauncey Goss said, praising DeSantis and lawmakers for “starting this critical project 12 months early.”

The state has lobbied the federal government for at least $200 million in annual match-funding until it is completed. President Donald Trump in December approved the state’s request for the coming fiscal year.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior senator, said he will focus on sustaining federal funding.

“We’re finally on a path to completion within our lifetime, and I will not let us slide back into complacency,” Rubio said. “The restoration of our Everglades is too important to leave unfinished.”

As groundwork for the project begins, debate over Lake Okeechobee’s water level continues as area farmers, cities and utilities maintain the Army Corps is not properly maintaining the 2008 Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule and not abiding by the savings clause in the 2000 version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

The 2008 Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule was crafted to ensure water levels in the 730-square-mile impoundment don’t get too high or too low.

Lake levels usually range from 12.5 feet to 15.5 feet, although it has been below 11.5 feet in recent weeks during Florida’s typically dry spring.

High water levels add stress to the Herbert Hoover Dike, creating a flood risk and requiring discharges, a source of toxic algae blooms.

In letters to U.S. Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart, Lois Frankel and Alcee Hastings, dozens of individuals and groups, ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, said the Army Corps is not abiding by the Savings Clause provision in the 2000 WRDA.

“The Corps seeks to unilaterally free itself of complying with WRDA 2000,” the letter read. “If allowed to do so, Florida’s existing and future water supply will be jeopardized at a time when we need assurances that sufficient water will be available for everyone.”

DeSantis, U.S. Rep Brian Mast and some environmental groups are among those who support keeping Lake Okeechobee’s water level low to reduce the need for discharges.