Last Wednesday morning, the mayors of the six municipalities in Lee County – Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki and the newly incorporated Village of Estero Mayor Nick Bados – held a joint meeting at Fort Myers’ City Hall to discuss water quality issues and how they could work together on short and long term solutions to water management.
At the beginning of the meeting, Henderson reported that he’d recently toured Nicodemus Slough – a recently completed filter marsh area in south Lee County that can hold up to 34,000 acre-feet of water – and said he was impressed with what he’d learned by ‘getting down on the ground’ with actual projects and asked if anyone else wanted to share their experiences.
Mayor Ruane, who has been spearheading efforts to get local water quality projects off the ground – explained that his city’s approach to the issue is to follow the science.
“First, we get educated and we educate others to make sure we don’t do any more damage,” he said. “Basically, the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) works like this: if the lake is in a high band, then water releases are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. If low, than it is the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Depending on what band you’re in, you need to advocate and work with one agency or another. Our ecosystem literally operates under the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – we either have too much water or not enough. For the seven years I’ve been on Sanibel’s council, we have begged for water. The bottom line is, there is no silver bullet and it’s going to take a long time to fix – requiring cooperation at the local, state and federal levels to put together the many pieces of the puzzle.”
Ruane said there are many challenges to simply sending the water south to the Everglades.
“First, it has to be cleaned of nutrient pollution or we’ll get lawsuits because of the Everglades Forever Act that requires any water entering Everglades National Park to contain less than 10 parts per billion nitrogen and phosphorous,” he said. “Second, we need the land to do that with. I’ve actually reached out to the president of U.S. Sugar, Robert Coker, and we had a spirited discussion where we didn’t agree on a lot of things, but if we want the land than we have to talk to them. You can’t just walk up and punch someone in the nose because then they won’t ever work with you.”
Mayor Ruane said that a ‘number of encouraging things are happening’ including a 27-page ‘white paper’ prepared by Lee County and its municipalities along with Sanibel Natural Resources Director James Evans. The document, which was revised on March 17th of this year, is endorsed by several environmental organizations including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and details short and long-term solutions for water storage and treatment.
“This is a watershed plan that serves as a road map for storage,” Ruane said. “We need 3 million acre feet – 1 million to the north, one million in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), and one million in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds. It’s critical to be able to send the water south because Florida Bay is having a major problem with high salinity levels due to not getting enough fresh water but there is no simple singular solution to this.”
In response to criticism of the planned C-43 reservoir, Ruane agreed that there is no water treatment component, but said the project is still necessary in order to balance the salinity in the Caloosahatchee River.
“This only provides 38% of the storage we need, but understand we received no water at all from the lake between June and October – everything came from the watershed,” he said. “We need fresh water for the tape grass and the sea grass.”
Mayor Ruane also talked about several bills making their way through the Florida Legislature – including the ‘Legacy Florida’ bill in the House – that dedicates $200 million for Everglades restoration through 2026.
“That bill gives priority to projects that reduce high water flows to the east and west,” he said. “And keep in mind that the situation here on the west coast is a lot more complicated than the east – they are only 25 miles from the lake where we are 70 miles away.”
Mayor Henderson thanked Ruane for his report, and said that the Florida League of Cities and the Florida League of Mayors had agreed on the priorities set forth in the ‘white paper’ – which include short-term, low-cost ideas – like maximizing storage on private lands – and priorities at the federal, state and regional levels.
“We are all coalescing around this as region, so we can go to Tallahassee united,” Henderson said, before asking each mayor what they’re doing to see how they can all connect.
Bonita Mayor Ben Nelson said we are all surrounded and defined by water.
“We have the state’s water we need to get them to fix, and there’re things we can do on our own,” he said. “Lee is becoming increasingly urban with six cities. We need to support the CREW trust and the 20/20 program to purchase properties for storage. I’d like to form a plan where we affect our own destiny and take that to the Florida Legislature.”
Mayor Cereceda said that you only need to come over the bridge onto Fort Myers Beach to see how we are impacted.
“The health of Estero Bay and the Gulf are instrumental to our way of life and tourism,” she said. “We had a golf course on the island which has now been purchased by the community that surrounded it – Bay Beach – and they will operate it as a preserve We’re also involved with a stormwater project which will help the back bay.”
Henderson said he’s been out on the water during releases and seen where it’s brown in one place and clear in another.
“We’ve installed three filter marshes – and all are functioning, but all that work can be swept away in one or two uncontrolled releases from the lake,” he said. “I want to make sure we do all we can to inspire the best interaction with those releases.”
Cape Mayor Sawicki said her city has a reverse osmosis plant that has received worldwide acclaim.
“We now have enough water to support all our people even at build out,” she said. “We’re working on a new sprinkler ordinance and continuing joint water projects with the City of Fort Myers.”
“I like being able to work on things locally without dealing with bureaucracy,” she said.
Nelson suggested that there be an organization where all cities can go to work out issues with water quality. Ruane and Henderson said they liked the idea.
Estero Mayor Bados said it comes down to individual people in the community – and every person he’s heard from within his first year has said water is their number one concern, both quality and quantity.
“People look at our town as a paradise, but they want to make sure it’s maintained,” he said. “This affects their day-to-day way of life.”
Ruane said that one short-term solution could be the restoration and rebuilding of slot walls in the dike around the lake.
“The 2008 LORS said that when a third of the improvements to the dike have been made, the lake can hold more water,” he said. “So we are advocating for six inches – 225,000 acre feet of water – and to get that done quicker without reopening LORS. We wrote a letter last year asking them to reevaluate the risk assessment for this and when we went to Congress, every congressman said they were in favor it.”
“We need to look at every possibility because scientists have indicated that we’re in for a very wet next couple of years thanks to El Nino,” Ruane concluded. “We also need to work with SWFMD to release a little bit of water more often rather then ‘flushing the toilet’ when the lake gets too high – try to learn from 2013 and do what we can now.”
The next meeting of the six mayors will be held at Sanibel’s City Hall sometime in January. Stay tuned to the Sand Paper for a date.
Keri Hendry Weeg