FGCU Hosts Annual Forum

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Water Resources Conference

The 28th Annual Southwest Florida Water Resources Conference was in the Cohen Center at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) on Friday, January 25, where a record attendance of 180 participants heard 14 environmental experts discuss regional water quality issues and initiatives.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Win Everham of FGCU reminded the audience, “The Koreshans came to this area in the last century to create a utopia and they are extinct; let’s hope that does not happen to us over water! Our role as a university is to work with our various communities to solve these problems, while training our students to help. FGCU will announce on ‘World Water Day’ on March 22, a new college specializing in this, because past practices were to scare people into action but that particular nerve is dead, so we now need a program to promote water quality and sustainability. We may all look back on the harmful 2018 algae blooms as the starting point that connected our environment, economy and health and finally galvanized politicians, residents, snowbirds and businesses about what is best for our future. We have 180 people here with over a millennium of experience in water research, so let’s get it done!”

The first session focused on “Regional Collaboration,” with Jennifer Hecker of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program (CHNEP) stating that her organization “focuses on four priority problems: hydrological alterations, water quality degradation, stewardship gaps and fish and wildlife habitat loss that interconnects our lakes to rivers to estuaries that all flow into the Gulf of Mexico, because water benefits us all if we manage it correctly. Water does not recognize political or geographic boundaries, so the CHNEP leverages partnerships to achieve great results together. An exciting initiative for us is we are now putting together our new five-year plan, including expanding our jurisdiction to add two new inland counties, leading to our upcoming name change to the ‘Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership’ under our same initials.”

Roland Ottolini of Lee County Natural Resources discussed the “Southern Lee County Flood Mitigation Study” that focused on the rain events of Invest 92L and Hurricane Irma from August 25 through September 11, 2017. “In that combined 20 days, Lee County averaged roughly 28 inches of rainfall, as opposed to 8 inches from Hurricane Charley, meaning we qualified for a 1,000-year storm event that overwhelmed our drainage system, and discovered that homes that met the current FEMA Floodplain Regulations were mostly unaffected. Lee County is addressing this through a 3-phase plan, with the first two already complete. When finished, the study will provide an overall stormwater management system assessment for area solutions, to establish plans to reduce flooding on a large regional scale, with an emphasis to keep people and homes safe and improve evacuation plans.”

The Venice of America

Under the “Strategies for Building Resiliency in Water Systems” session, Robert Verrastro, Principal Hydrogeologist for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), addressed “Emergency Estuary Protection Walls.” “We recently initiated a Deep Injection Well Program to provide flood protection and ensure a clean water supply. We are considering 12 of these 3,000-foot deep wells that cost roughly $7 million each, to send water below the aquifer level to the boulder layer. Wells will work in conjunction with the entire system, coming on-line only after all other places that need water, like the Everglades and Florida Bay, receive it. Modeling indicates that 16 to 18 deep injection wells, combined with all other programs like the Central Everglades Planning Project and C43 & C44 Reservoirs, will reduce estuary damaging Lake Okeechobee releases over the next 40 years from 70 to 17 months. Since this is a State plan under strict environmental regulations, we can do this immediately, without waiting on the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”

Dr. Kelly Morgan of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food & Agricultural Services spoke about “Emerging Technologies for Agricultural Best Management Practices,” “to reduce nutrients in drinking water based on a scientific basis and not just things we think will work. New technology such as drones, smart phone apps and ground truthing can improve our ability to grow produce while not crippling growers with financial hardships and protecting the environment all at the same time. There are currently 4.6-million agricultural acres under the statewide Basic Management Plan where these policies are no longer voluntary but mandatory.”

Elkin Diaz, of the City of Fort Lauderdale, and Bob Munro, a business consulting & asset manager from Fort Myers, presented “Resiliency Strategies for Stormwater Systems.” Diaz addressed the “Watershed Asset Management Program (WAMP)” implemented by Fort Lauderdale, or “the Venice of America,” as he called it! “We have to manage South Florida’s infrastructure more effectively, due to challenges and limitations we encounter over climate change that lead to increased rainfall and sealevel rise. Waters around Fort Lauderdale are now 6 inches higher than in 1992, with projections of another 6 to 10 inches by 2030. The Everglades, regional discharges and the groundwater table in conjunction with low-lying streets and deteriorating seawalls all make water challenging, so we need to plan for this to be a resilient community.”

Munro stated that this entails studying key elements such as the current state of assets, infrastructure improvements, business plans and funding analysis, “to determine what we must do. Resiliency is how prepared we are, to respond through the 3-step process of ‘Discovery, Implementation & Management,’ bearing in mind that everyone has limited finances and human resources, to sustain assets beyond their design life to mitigate risk.”

Education Is The Key

The Keynote Address featured Dr. James Metcalf of the Brain Chemistry Labs, who presented “Health Impacts of Harmful Algae Blooms.” Many people recognized Dr. Metcalf from his prominent appearance in the award-winning environmental documentary, 2017’s “The Toxic Puzzle.” “Cyanobacteria outbreaks go back well over 100 years and are a global phenomenon. South Florida had significant blooms in 2016 and 2018 and while they may not be readily apparent now, are still present in the water. Freshwater cyanoblooms are a primary cause of liver cancer and research seems to indicate that they can lead to ALS, Parkinson’s and Dementia, or even a combination of these diseases.”

Dr. Metcalf stated, “We used to think you needed direct exposure to water for these toxins to affect you, but now breathing it might cause health issues, even if you are many miles away from infected waters. We as humans put pressure on our water resources, through waste and fertilizers and climate change, as warmer water leads to longer and stronger cyanobacteria blooms, so to reduce blooms and our exposure, we must reduce these. Education is the key; we must teach our children now about how to be good stewards of water, to do so when they grow up, and there are already plenty of examples of this in Europe, to provide the educational tools we need.”

No New Water

The next session focused on “Water Reuse,” with James Evans of the City of Sanibel discussing “Surface & Groundwater Nutrient Loading from Reuse Water on Sanibel.” “We originally thought of reuse water as an asset to our community, but discovered it was not clean, leaving it as a major nutrient source to our island, especially from golf courses. They have the highest reuse water on Sanibel and account for 23% of our nutrients while making up just 3% of our land. We are upgrading our wastewater plant to cut nitrogen and phosphorus by 50 to 70 percent, though this is expensive at close to $21 million, but we are moving forward with it because this is too important, to reduce nutrients to our coastal waters.”

Randy Brown of the City of Pompano Beach spoke on “Direct Potable Reuse.” “We all drink reuse water, as there is no new water – you are all drinking dinosaur pee! Future people will judge us by saying we were very wasteful with water or we got the best out of it by optimizing the resource, so we need professional people in our industry to get onboard to develop this as our next drinking water source. Florida’s population over the next 35 years will increase by another 7 million people so we must find water from other areas while protecting the environment and growing our economy.”

Dr. D. Albrey Arrington of the Loxahatchee River District from Jupiter offered “A Study in Nutrient Loading Rates from Irrigation with Reuse Water.” “I am not a big fan of direct potable water reuse but different problems require different solutions and, in our society, we often forget that intelligent people can disagree over solutions without making either of them an idiot or the devil! We must figure out ways to use water wisely, through creative solutions and funding, to engage problems. People fifty years from now will look back on us today and say ‘they set us up for success or we are still paying for their cheap decisions,’ so I make my decisions today for 50 years from now! We reduce nutrient loads from the start of our water supply, until by the time it comes out our sprinkler heads, it has only 30% of the recommended nitrogen necessary for turf grass, meaning our area has real green grass, because our citizens need their green grass, all from reclaimed water while breathing an ethical sigh of relief.”

Attorneys Elizabeth Ross and Luna Phillips discussed “Legislative Update & Emerging Issues,” including new Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ recent $2.5 billion Environmental Executive Order, as well as early glimpses of upcoming Legislation such as for septic tanks and a coastal protection program for beach renourishment. “We are at a ‘fork in the road’ for future growth,” said Ross, “for the State to protect natural resources like the Everglades, for all our new citizens to move forward.”

Up To Us

The final session was on “The Effects of Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB),” with Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani presenting “Caloosahatchee HAB Data from the 2018 Bloom.” “Last year was another lost summer! Over the past 30 years, we had eight cyanobacteria outbreaks in the last 15 years, compared to two in the 15 years before that. I will never forget last June 22, because I worked on the Caloosahatchee for the prior 40 years, and there was Blue-Green Algae all up and down the river, and by July 2, Lake Okeechobee had 90% coverage. International news picked that up and that is not good for a region that depends on tourism. We had cyanobacteria all over the entire 70-mile length of the Caloosahatchee, Red Tide well out into the Gulf, and a 10 to 12 mile overlapping region we never saw before, producing a new scope of intensity.”

James Metcalf from “The Toxic Puzzle” was the Conference Keynote Speaker.

Dr. Michael Parsons of FGCU spoke last on “Red Tide in Southwest Florida.” “Everyone always asks me why Red Tide was so bad last year, and I look at Hurricane Irma, as that was an interesting storm with a lot of rainfall, including five of the top ten all-time discharge days at the Franklin Lock and three of the top ten rainfall days ever at Page Field, and all of a sudden, Red Tide was its worst since Hurricane Wilma; is that a coincidence? There is no one ‘Smoking Gun’ out there, like just Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee, nutrients, the local watershed or submarine ground discharges because if it were that simple, we would have solved it 30 years ago, so it is everything, including a massive population increase in a 50-year-old design system we now completely overload. The only thing we know for sure about Red Tide is – IT IS COMPLICATED! As scientists, our job is to explain this to our constituents in terms they can comprehend, because if we add any more stress to the system, it will break. If we don’t take care of our environment, no one else will, so it is up to us!