‘White Paper’ Details Solutions to Lee’s Water Woes

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When Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane and Natural Resources Director James Evans appeared before Town Council on May 16th, they brought with them a recently revised version of a 37-page document that Ruane referred to as a ‘White Paper.’ This document, endorsed by all Lee County mayors, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Ding Darling Wildlife Society, the Florida Clean Water Network, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Association, Audubon of the Western Everglades, the Florida League of Cities and many others, details short and long term solutions to our area’s water issues – including the addition of a water treatment component to the C-43 Reservoir.

“The goal of creating this was to make sure all of our citizens have all the information that’s out there in order to make informed decisions,” Evans, the paper’s principle author, told us. “I’m waiting to hear back from the various environmental groups and people in Lee County Natural Resources, then I will make the final changes – with the completed version being available to the public on our website sometime in June.”

It was last December that Ruane first revealed the document, which at the time was 27 pages long. Evans explained that he has ‘pretty much rewritten’ the entire document since then based on updates to various projects – one of them the C-43 Reservoir, for which a request for a water treatment component was not originally included in the paper.

“When C-43 was approved, there was no water treatment area (STA),” Evans said. “Now we are actually requesting that the South Florida Water Management District begin the design work so that – by the time Cell One is complete in 2020 there will be an STA to accompany it. As far as funding, we are pushing the state legislature to take the lead on this as their funding process takes much less time than the federal one.”

“The purpose of this document is to summarize and place into context the projects and policies needed to restore freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee River and estuary,” reads the paper’s Goals and Objectives. “It outlines a number of the challenges we must overcome in order to be successful in restoring the Northern Estuaries and Everglades…focusing on those projects that will provide the greatest short and long-term benefits to the Caloosahatchee estuary.”

The paper points out that tourism generates $3 billion in annual revenues for Lee County, and the results of a 2013 poll by the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau (VCB) showing that 94% of those visiting our area chose beaches as the most attractive asset. It identifies the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) as ‘the blueprint to restore the Everglades’ with more than 68 projects to be designed and completed over a 30-year period at a 50/50 cost share between the state and the federal government. Originally estimated to cost $8.2 billion, that number has now doubled to more than $16 billion – with the biggest challenge being a political one as the projects span such a vast area, more than 18,000 square miles, resulting in a diversity of opinions as to the best way to achieve success.

“Funding remains the greatest limiting factor in making progress on Everglades restoration,” the paper reads. “The timeframe for completing Everglades restoration is dependent on a number of things, including the availability of state and federal funding, the length of time needed and the amount of land available for construction.”

The document outlines then-Governor Charlie Crist’s plan to purchase 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land in 2008, how that deal was amended first in 2009 to purchase up to 73,000 acres initially with the remaining 107,000 acres optioned out over the next 10 years, again in 2010 to purchase 26,800 acres and ultimately dropped in 2015 when the South Florida Water Management District opted to instead focus on projects ‘already underway’. An option to purchase all of the land still exists until 2020, but U.S. Sugar has put strings on the deal – including the right to lease much of it in order to continue farming on it for 20 years after purchase, according to Ruane.

So how important is water quality?  The Florida Everglades Forever Act – passed in 1994 – prevents water from entering the Everglades National Park if total phosphorous concentrations exceed 10 parts per billion (ppb). In 2015, phosphorous concentrations in the Lake Okeechobee watershed averaged 117 ppb. In 2014, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) adopted a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for the lake that set Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) but these are primarily concerned with phosphorous, as that is the nutrient that controls most productivity in the lake. In the estuaries, the situation is different as nitrogen is that defining nutrient, so the FDEP set a TMDL for the tidal Caloosahatchee to reduce the current nitrogen load by 23%.

This is where the ‘white paper’ lists a number of strategies to address water storage and treatment divided into three categories: short-term, lower cost; long term state and long-term federal, saying “these projects and policy changes will provide meaningful relief to the coastal communities from the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River watershed”.

 

Short-Term, Lower-Cost Strategies

-Revisit the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), last updated in 2008. This is governed by the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which has been improved. When LORS is revisited, the document requests that regulatory releases be made more equitable – as the current LORS does not take into account flows from the Caloosahatchee watershed – and determine if the lake can be maintained at a lower level to increase storage capacity.

-Maximize flows through the Stormwater Treatment Areas and Water Conservation Areas to convey more water south through completion of storage and treatment projects like the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) and Modified Water Deliveries (MOD Waters).

-Utilize emergency storage on all public and private lands currently held by the state and provide flexibility for the management of areas north of the lake so more water can be held there later into the dry season.

 

Federal & State Priorities

-Accelerate design and planning for the EAA Reservoirs Projects – a 31,000 acre STA that could hold up to 360,000 acre feet of water that is currently not scheduled to begin until 2020; obtain federal authorization and funding for CEPP; expedite repairs to the dike and ensure that federal funding keeps pace with the state.

-Since many of the state’s priorities are a 50/50 cost share with the feds, the EAA Reservoirs is at the top of this list, too. Also included is the “immediate planning and design of a water quality treatment component” for the C-43 Reservoir, completion of the Lake Hicpochee Restoration project, implement flow monitoring within the Caloosahatchee tributaries to determine where runoff is originating and continue to support ecological restoration within the Caloosahatchee estuary.

-The last 10 pages of the ‘white paper’ provide a list of Caloosahatchee River Watershed Projects, the agencies responsible for them, their cost, estimated nutrient removal, estimated storage capacity and status as of the summer of 2014.

Once the final version of the ‘white paper’ is ready, Evans said it will be submitted to all municipalities in Lee County.

“Hopefully, they’ll all pass resolutions to support it,” he said. “At that point, we will send it to the state legislature for consideration during their next budget cycle. We will also take it with us when we go to D.C.”

 

Keri Hendry Weeg