On Wednesday morning, the five mayors of Lee County municipalities – Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda, Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki and Estero Mayor Nick Batos – gathered at Bonita Springs City Hall for an emergency meeting to develop an action plan regarding the Lake Okeechobee discharges.
At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Ruane explained that the format would be a workshop, so no public comment would be taken.
“We are faced with a situation where we’ve had 570% of average rainfall for the month of January, which is generally considered the dry season,” he said. “Several years ago, the Lee County mayors started coming together to work to make Lee County a better place to live, and we are here today because water quality is an issue that affects us all.”
Ruane explained there are two components to this issue – quality and quantity.
“One issue we all got behind is fertilizer, we’ve all contributed to educate citizens about that – we don’t need any more nutrient load than necessary. We’ve also identified areas where we can be better stewards in our individual communities.
“We want to have transparency at all levels. The problem is massive; there is no silver bullet. We are our own worst enemy and we have affected the environment.”
Ruane said the first issue of concern is backpumping.
“We are all concerned with public safety, but why do we have to do certain things?” he asked. “There is a town that had a flood protection mechanism, and there is a protocol for that that we want the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to show us. We want to encourage full transparency on backpumping – what steps did the District go through to make this decision? The District needs to advise us whether or not all other possible solutions were exhausted before this decision was made.”
The mayors also agreed to ask the county what opportunities are available for emergency excess water on Conservation 20/20 properties.
“As taxpayers, we have put a lot of money into this program and there may be other lands we can purchase and use for this purpose in emergencies,” Ruane said. “We also need to look into private properties too.”
Nelson said he believes a realistic appraisal needs to be done so the public can understand what happens in these types of events.
“When it rains a lot, the water has to go somewhere, and I think we need to develop a really good plan as to what we can do,” he said. Sawicki suggested that each mayor develop a plan for their own ‘backyard’ and return to the other mayors.
Ruane said the action plan is to concentrate on local, then state, then federal.
Cereceda suggested a better clarification of the whole backpumping issue.
“There are other communities who are suffering too,” she said. “I’d like to frame this request in a more real sense, for them to quantify what it is they’re doing in very specific terms and what avenues were exhausted.”
Henderson said he’d like to see an action plan where ‘everyone shares in the pain’.
The mayors agreed that they need to know about situations like backpumping before it hits the press so they can explain it to the public.
Henderson reported that he met with Representative Matt Hudson in Tallahassee who told him about work being done on the Kissimmee River to slow down how much water flows from that basin into Lake O.
“There are things moving in the right direction, painfully slow as it may be,” he said. “To bring it down to the ground, one of my son’s friends told me they are getting multiple cancellations to their fishing charter businesses because of the water. I hope our collective efforts can prioritize the shared adversity aspect.”
Ruane explained that the Corp has the authority to allow high releases when Lake O gets too high, but attention needs to be paid to what they’ve been doing to fix the aging dike.
“We’re going to challenge the Corps to look at the risk assessment – how many improvements have taken place and where we are in the process,” he said. “If we can quantify the $500 million we’ve spent and can more water be held in the lake? If there’s a breach, does that mean water around your ankles or over your head?”
Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resources Director Rae Ann Wessel explained how she participates in a weekly conference call with the Army Corps of Engineers and west coast area scientists, that results in a report on the conditions of the Caloosahatchee River and the estuary that is then sent to local decision makers.
“A big part of what’s coming down the river is coming from our own watershed – not the lake,” she said. “C-43 is under construction so we can’t use that now, and even when it’s completed – likely to be 2020 – we will still need another 280,000 acre feet of storage In the background. We have asked the District to help us figure out exactly where all the water is coming from so we can site new storage projects in the right places. We’d also like to know how can we change future conditions so we can move water south and prevent another 2005, 2013 and now 2016.”
Ruane said that Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto is working with Senator Joe Negron on a bill called Legacy Florida that would use 25% of Amendment One funds for Everglades projects.
“Legacy Florida would allow us to acquire storage area for that additional 280,000 acre feet and pay to treat that water,” he said. “We’ve gone to Tallahassee to support this. It’s passed the House and is now in the Senate. Also, C-43 doesn’t have a treatment facility, and this would fund that.”
Henderson asked Wessel if the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource (DRGR) lands in south Lee County could be used for water storage.
“This is a place where water filters into the aquifer, but the challenge of taking excess water and moving it there – I’m not sure if that’s feasible and I’m not sure we’d get the permitting,” Wessel replied. “You can’t just take a pipe and dump it in there.”
Sawicki said she’d look into whether or not Cape Coral could take more water into that city’s 400 miles of canals.
Finally, Henderson pointed out that the $2 billion cost estimated to fix the problem by purchasing land to move excess water south is really ‘a drop in the bucket’ compared to how much the state stands to lose in tourism dollars, destruction of fisheries, etc. should the problem continue.
Keri Hendry Weeg