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Florida wetland proposal threatens aviation safety

The location of a proposed stormwater treatment area in Okeechobee County, Florida, is raising alarms from AOPA, the FAA, and local pilots, as the project design will likely attract avian species that will create hazards for pilots flying at three surrounding airports.

The proposed wetland constructed area, shaded, lies between two private airfields and is 4 nautical miles southwest of Okeechobee County Airport. Google Earth image.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) intends to turn several thousands of acres of land north of Lake Okeechobee in the lower Kissimmee River Basin into a constructed wetland area.

The plan is to pump water away from the Kissimmee River, releasing the water into cells containing human-made wetlands and marsh habitat. By naturally filtering stormwater and absorbing nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen through plants, pollution to Lake Okeechobee can be further curbed.

The project’s mission has strong support, but the location of the project is concerning for local businesses, county officials, and pilots.

For the aviation community, bird strikes are the main concern. The Lakeside Ranch Stormwater Treatment Area—a similar project near Lake Okeechobee completed by the SFWMD in 2021—has become an oasis for birds of all kinds. Local and transient pilots flying in and out of Okeechobee County Airport, River Oak, and Sunset Strip Airpark, and residents who live near the airports will all face greater safety threats if the proposed stormwater treatment area is approved and inevitably invites similar avian species to the area.

A majority of bird strikes occur at relatively low altitudes during the most demanding operations of flight—when a pilot is on approach or departure from an airport. Because of its proximity to the three airports, the proposed location of the stormwater treatment area will have a high volume of low-altitude aircraft. The departure and landing paths for the River Oak and Sunset Strip airports are only 1,500 feet away from the property line of the proposed project. Additionally, the location of the project in relation to the Okeechobee County Airport—the only federally obligated airport of the three—does not meet federal compliance standards detailed in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-33C, related to “Hazardous Wildlife Attractants on or near Airports.”

AOPA Airport Support Network volunteers have attended public meetings to express their concerns and a December 1 letter to Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Shawn Hamilton and Board Chairman of the South Florida Water Management District Chauncey Goss from AOPA Southern Regional Manager Stacey Heaton detailed AOPA’s specific grievances with the location of the project.

“It is unlikely that the proposed project can be engineered, and maintained, as to not potentially increase the risk of wildlife mixing with aircraft operations and therefore should not move forward in its proposed location,” said Heaton. “Regardless that previous projects were inappropriately allowed to occur too close to an airport, no additional hazardous projects should move forward that are inconsistent with the FAA’s standards for the safety of civil aviation.”

In addition to aviation risks, the community and commissioners are worried about property values and insurance rates should the stormwater treatment area proceed in the suggested location. Okeechobee County Commissioner and Chairman David Hazellief has openly expressed his concerns with the project proposal and disappointment with SFWMD’s reluctance to open meetings to county involvement.

AOPA strongly supports the environmental mission of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the SFWMD but will continue to urge the relocation of the project.

On December 14, the SFWMD Governing Board will meet to discuss the issue. Those who wish to share concerns and politely express opposition to the location of the stormwater treatment area are encouraged to contact FDEP Deputy Secretary for Ecosystems Restoration Adam Blalock and SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett before the meeting.

Lillian Geil

Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy

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