Last Thursday, members of the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) governing board met in the Lee County Commission Chambers in downtown Fort Myers where presentations on past and future Everglades restoration projects were received with mixed emotions from those who would like to see more focus on efforts to store and treat water south of Lake Okeechobee.
During a discussion on local water quality projects, Lee County Natural Resources Director Roland Ottolini said that the major driver of those projects is the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process and compliance with Best Management Practices (BMAPs) and that the county has made a $37 million commitment to these programs.
Ottolini outlined some of those projects and the amount of nitrogen removed from the water per year: Powell Creek – 1,200 pounds; Popash Creek Preserve – 6,600 pounds and Lakes Park (originally a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, CERP, project) – 6,600 pounds.
“Proposed projects include the Nalle Grade Stormwater Park – 1,350 pounds; Fichter’s Creek – 800 pounds and the west branch of Hendry Creek – this is 11 acres close to Lakes Park that serves as a tidal influence, so we can clean the water as it comes in so when it goes back out to tide the nutrients are gone,” he said. “We’ve also got a few conceptual projects like Deep Lagoon Preserve and the Florida Power and Light Powerline Easement.”
Ottolini said that, since there is not a lot of scientific knowledge about the removal of nitrogen from the water – most nutrient removal programs in the Everglades focus on phosphorous – the county is currently seeking ideas for better ways to do it.
In his report on current water conditions, Division Director John Mitnik reported that the months of November, December and January were the wettest since record keeping began in 1932 and that areas in the Kissimmee River basin north of Lake O and Water Conservation Areas south of the lake are already flooded or approaching the high levels of their regulation schedules.
Water Resources Division Director Terrie Bates, in her report on Environmental Conditions, told the board that there have been fish kills and losses of dry season wading bird habitat in the Kissimmee Basin due to flooding.
“There is no way for organisms to adapt to all the water coming in so fast,” she said. “But, on a brighter note, we’ve seen an increase of 3,500 acres of seagrass beds in the area from Boca Grande to Wiggins Pass and we are one year into our 3 year Tape Grass Planting project that is a cooperative effort with Lee County. During the first year, the plants kept getting eaten, so now we put them in cages, with 4 sites planted in June 2015 – those plants are growing up. The idea is to have the protected areas serve as a seed source for the damaged areas.”
Bates said that the District has been collecting samples of blue green algae, with the results being that nine out of the fourteen test sites have no toxins. Note: one of the sites that tested positive was near the Franklin Locks in eastern Lee County – which had a positive value of 27.3 (or just into the ‘high health effects’ category) for the toxin microcystin.
“We do see more algae in response to extra nutrients in the water, but they do occur naturally and there are no active management things you can do in response to a bloom – you can’t scoop it out of the water,” she said.
Mitnik then explained that the C-43 Reservoir project will consist of two cells with an average depth of 25 feet covering 10,500 acres.
“This will be done in 4 phases, and the first contract – for 10.8 million – was awarded last year,” he said.
At this point board member Mitch Hutchcraft weighed in, saying that the District has some additional land adjacent to the planned reservoir site that they are asking staff to look into for a possible water quality component.
Steve Sentes, Lead Regulatory Professional for Everglades Policy and Coordination, talked about the Lower West Coast Watershed Initiatives where he outlined four initiatives that the District is working on in conjunction with local entities: Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods, Lehigh Headwaters, North Six Mile Cypress, and the Corridor Project.
“With Charlotte Harbor Flatwoods, we will able to move water into the northwest part of the project area, hold there and treat it, then move it to tidal creeks,” he said. “With the Lehigh project, we are looking at 1,500 to 2,000 acre feet of storage. Six Mile Cypress will allow us to move water south into the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve and the Caloosahatchee Corridor is designed to store water north of the river so it can be sent down the river when it is needed.”
Finally, Matt Morrison, Federal Policy Chief for the Office of Everglades Policy and Coordination explained how Everglades restoration projects are separated into five categories – Pre-CERP Foundation projects, some of which are nearing completion; 1st Generation CERP, under construction; 2nd Generation CERP, being designed; CEPP (Central Everglades Planning Project), awaiting authorization and Active Planning, proposed projects.
“Foundation projects like the Kissimmee River restoration and Modified Waters are nearing completion, as are some generation one projects like the Picayune Strand and Indian River Lagoon South,” Morrison said.
Matt went on to say that proposed projects like the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and the Western Everglades project (also known as Big Cypress/L-28 Interceptor) are designed to be done in tandem.
“For the Lake O watershed, we will be looking at treating and storing water north of the lake to increase the water quality in the lake,” he said. “This includes the placing of underground storage (ASR) facilities near tributaries as close to the lake as possible.”
Hutchcraft commented that the District has identified 140 potential ASR sites, 80 of them around Lake O, and that a recently completed feasibility study showed them to be a good way to store and treat water for as long as 5 years.
For the Western Everglades project, Morrison explained that the goal is to improve freshwater flows to the natural system by reestablishing sheet-flow from the West Feeder Canal across the Big Cypress National Preserve and into the Big Cypress National Preserve.
“The District is also going to take a hard look on becoming more flexible when releasing/storing water,” he added. “These projects are consistent with Governor Scott’s 20-year funding plan for Everglades restoration, and we will be working with the Army Corps of Engineers to use their expedited three-year planning process, with project kick-offs in July or August.”
Board member Kevin Powers said that even three years is too long for the Corps to plan a project.
“How can we get that reduced to 24 months, to 18 months?” he asked. “These projects need to start now as these people are suffering.”
Both at the beginning of the meeting and at the end, local lawmakers – including State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto and State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen and representatives from environmental groups spoke in favor of making a greater effort to purchase land south of the lake to store and treat excess water before sending it to the Everglades.
“We need storage south and treatment areas south of the lake so we can use that water to recharge Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay,” said former county commissioner Ray Judah. Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resources Director Rae Ann Wessel agreed, saying that storage north of the lake does not address rain falling on the lake, causing levels to rise and water to be discharged down the rivers.
Hutchcraft replied that the District is looking at moving the water south, but that storage is also needed east and west of the lake.
“And sending the water south does nothing to help the water quality in the lake,” he said.
To view all the presentations made at the meeting, go to bit.ly/SFWMD9, and click on the ‘presentations’ tab for the 6/09/16 meeting.
Keri Hendry Weeg