Water Woes Continue in 2016

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    The torrent of nutrient-laden freshwater now coming down the Caloosahatchee River from the upper watershed and Lake Okeechobee has local lawmakers and conservationists up in arms and demanding answers – especially in light of the fact the Everglades Agricultural Area has been permitted to back-pump their even more polluted extra water back into the lake rather than flood sugar cane fields – setting up a situation some claim proves that – to the state – agriculture is more important than estuaries.

    On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to increase flows from Lake Okeechobee even higher than they did last weekend “in an effort to stem the rise in water level brought about by recent heavy precipitation.”

    “Starting Friday (Feb. 5), the Corps will remove specific target flows and
    release as much water as practical through Moore Haven Lock (S-77) located
    on the west side of the lake, and the Port Mayaca Lock (S-308) located on
    the east side of the lake,” the statement reads. “Flows will vary based on downstream conditions in the Caloosahatchee River/Estuary and the St. Lucie Canal/Estuary.”

    “Even with the discharges that started last week, the lake continues to
    rise,” said Col. Jason Kirk, Jacksonville District Commander.  “With
    additional rain in the forecast, we believe we must further increase flows
    to reverse the upward trend of the lake. With heavy rains and the lake above 16 feet, we must use all available tools to protect the health and safety of people working and living in south Florida.”

    Depending on runoff and other factors, the Corps said flows could be – from
    the lake – up to 9,300 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Caloosahatchee basin
    and up to 7,600 cfs in the St. Lucie basin.

    On top of that, concerns about flooding in the communities south of the lake caused the South Florida Water Management District to allow back pumping – thus exacerbating the problem for the Corps – as they are responsible for the release protocol, but it is the South Florida Water Management District who operates the pumps.

    Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and a 20+ year veteran of our local water wars is fed up. She’s been asking the Corps to begin early smaller releases for months since she saw the predictions for a strong El Nino, and says she is growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of response to a problem that has been ongoing for years.

    “The first harm threshold was 2,800 cfs and the second was 4,500 – we’ve gone way beyond that now,” Wessel told us. “We’re even past 12,000 cfs coming from Franklin Lock (S-79), and that doesn’t include the rain water from further down the river – it’s 25 miles from Franklin to the mouth of the Caloosahatchee.”

    And Rae Ann says it’s only going to get worse.

    “Both NASA and NOAA have predicted – to 70% accuracy – that rainfall from January through April will be above normal and February and March will be very high,” she said. “This is not new news – a few months ago we needed water very badly as salinity levels were too high so we begged them to start small releases early rather than hit the estuary with all of this at once.”

    Water Woes Continue in 2016
    Photos taken at the Fort Myers Beach Pier on Saturday morning, January 30, 2016 by Lee County Parks staff. They illustrate the dramatic difference between normal Gulf water color and Lake Okeechobee water releases. The Army Corps of Engineers began back pumping water from agricultural fields into the lake and releasing water into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River last week.

    With lake levels at a dike-threatening 16.22 feet, Wessel says that the Caloosahatchee is getting 81% of the discharges.

    “None is going south,” she said. “How is it okay to flood the public’s crop of fisheries, oysters, seagrasses and scallops yet the sugar cane fields in the EAA can’t take some of the hit? I’m not against agriculture, I just think there should be shared adversity as well as shared prosperity – we’re all in it together. In this era of climate change, we’ve got to rethink everything being managed around agriculture.”

    Especially frustrating to Wessel is that nothing ever seems to change.

    “Back in 2005, when we had all these problems with dirty water coming from the lake, the woman who was Executive Director of SFWMD came to the Sanibel City Council and promised that plans were in place for 450,000 acre feet of storage. Here it is 11 years later, and we’ve only just broken ground on the C-43 Reservoir – something that will only take 25% of that and has no treatment component. And there’s nothing on the north side of the river – there’s no excuse for that.”

    In an email dated Tuesday, February 2nd to Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane – who has led Lee mayors in their fight for better water quality – Phil Flood, Intergovernmental Representative for the Lower West Coast of the SFWMD wrote that most local water storage capacity has already been filled.

    “Most of the available storage is in use,” Flood wrote. “Nicodemus Slough is at 90% capacity; pumping curtailed due to permit conditions; Boma is at 90%; pumping temporarily halted due to operational constraints; Mirror Lakes is at 50%; pumping is ongoing; Barron Water Control District is holding additional water within their water management system.”

    “The recent Lee County projects (North Six Mile Cypress, Bob Janes) are operational and holding water, and all of our contracted dispersed storage projects throughout the District are in use. The watershed continues to receive large volumes of runoff from the basin with still more to come in the form of sheet flow coming from Charlotte County…the overwhelming majority of Estuary inflow this past week is runoff – which accounted for an estimated 88% of the total. Absent additional rainfall, the basin runoff should begin to start tapering off later in the week.”

    “We are continuing to monitor storage operations and will continue to maximize the use of available facilities.”

    Rae Ann says that – until a project comes forward that will be a ‘game changer’ – she doesn’t see a happy ending.

    “Until then, we’re going to continue to operate under the ‘Goldilocks Principle’ – too little water in the dry months and too much during the rainy season, “ she said. “We need storage in what we call the ‘Franklin Pool’ – the area between S-78 and S-79 that will hold water and treat it so we can draw from it when we need it – we’ve talked about a bunch of little pieces but we need something more cumulative.”

    “We need someone to say that the future is going to look different and we need to stop doing repeated harm to one of the most productive estuaries in the state.”

    At press time, attempts to reach the Executive Director of SFWMD, Peter Antonacci and our local representative, Mitch Hutchcraft, were unsuccessful.

    The issue has drawn the attention of legislators on the local, state and federal levels. On Tuesday, Senator Bill Nelson, Representative Alcee L. Hastings and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart sponsored a bill to speed up Everglades restoration projects. If passed, the bill, called the ‘Everglades for Next Generation Act’, would allow the Army Corp of Engineers to start a number of projects geared at improving the flow of water in Florida. The bill, which has the support of local Representative Curt Clawson, includes projects such as a large reservoir that would collect water near Lake Okeechobee.

    At the state level, Senator Joe Negron, a Republican from Stewart who has long advocated for water projects and is slated to become Senate president in November, offered an amendment to the Senate’s proposed budget that would expand what is called the Caulkins “water farming” pilot project, which involves pumping water onto fallow, privately owned citrus land in Martin County. The project is estimated to cost $7.5 million and has passed the Senate’s budget committee but faces opposition from the Senate Appropriations Committee who question where the money will come from.

    Locally, Sanibel Mayor Ruane – who was in Tallahassee addressing our State legislators on critical long-term local and regional water quality projects when news of the increased water releases reached him – issued a call for immediate action by the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers to address the current Lake Okeechobee releases. Simultaneously, Mayor Ruane issued a call to the mayors of each city in Lee County to work collectively on requesting a ‘3-Point Action Plan’: Maximizing storage on all private lands currently under contract with the SFWMD; Maximize potential storage on public lands within Lee County; and call on the Army Corps of Engineers and the SFWMD to exercise their operational flexibility to hold more water in the lake.

    “As a community, as a region and as a government restoring and protecting the quality of our economic lifeline, water quality, is our highest priority,” Ruane said in a press release issued Wednesday. “We know we are most effective in Tallahassee and Washington when we speak with one unified voice.  Today I am calling on the mayors of our sister cities to support this 3-Point Plan for immediate action steps,” stated Ruane as he issued the “Call for Action.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg