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Issue 598

07/26/2012 at 3:33pm

MoorehavenWater Wars

Despite the onset of the summer afternoon rains, some parts of Florida are still officially suffering from the drought that has plagued our already over-taxed water supply since 2006, and water quality issues are still on the forefront of many folks' minds. Battles over who controls what flows down the Caloosahatchee into our back bay are being fought daily as politicians, businesses and environmentalists debate solutions, with the health of the river hanging in the balance.

Being surrounded by water, islanders will feel the direct effects of the decisions that are made so the Sand Paper continues to inform our readers of the latest news from the front lines of the ongoing water war.

Last Thursday, we attended a meeting of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council (SFWC) where former DEP Secretary Victoria Tschinkel talked about the latest news from Tallahassee and on August 1st we will take a trip to the inland city of LaBelle where the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) will be giving a presentation on a proposal to allow the back pumping of water from sugar fields in the Everglades Agricultural Areas (EAA) into Lake Okeechobee to provide dry season water flows for the Caloosahatchee.

Tschinkel began Thursday's presentation by explaining how she and former Governor Bob Graham established the Florida Conservation Coalition (FCC) last November and the success that the group – which has already grown to over a thousand members – has had with the most recent session of the state legislature.

"The goal this year was 'don't let them pass anything worse than before',” Victoria told the 50 or so SFWC members gathered at the Royal Palm Yacht Club in downtown Fort Myers. "We were also committed to preventing the state legislature from taking over the management of the state's seven water management districts.”

Despite an atmosphere where lawmakers clearly were not interested in environmental issues, Tschinkel reported several successes.

"First off, we reached a good compromise on the Privatization Bill,” she said. "This bill would have made any recycled water the property of the person operating the water treatment plant. The problem with this is it amounts to 300 million gallons of water that can be reused, and for the state to lose control of that would not be a good thing. Also, these folks aren't doing anyone a favor by cleaning this water – they are required to do it because they polluted it in the first place.”

Tschinkel then talked about how her group worked in conjunction with hunters' and sportsfishermen's coalitions to prevent half a million acres of land from being removed from the state's roster and the success they'd had ensuring that Governor Scott's recommendation of $8.4 million for Everglades restoration efforts remained in the budget.

"The most exciting thing is that they reversed the 2011 Legislature's decision to control all the water management districts,” she said. "This would have been disastrous because it would have allowed them to do things like trade one project for another…Clearly, they realized what a mistake that was because Governor Scott and the DEP already had the legislation written up to reverse it when the session began.”

The state's five water management districts came into being when Florida passed the Water Resources Act in 1972. In 1976, voters approved a constitutional amendment giving the districts the authority to levy property taxes to help fund these activities. The water management districts administer flood protection programs and perform technical investigations into water resources. The districts also develop water management plans for water shortages in times of drought and to acquire and manage lands for water management purposes under the Save Our Rivers program. Regulatory programs delegated to the districts include programs to manage the consumptive use of water, aquifer recharge, well construction and surface water management.

"This law, also known as Chapter 373, was considered a model law when it was passed,” Victoria said. "Basically it states that water is a public resource that cannot be bought or sold. The state holds it in trust for everyone to use… Floridians from every political party voted to tax ourselves to fund them. Water quality is not a partisan issue – it's important to everyone.”

Tschinkel talked about the current political atmosphere in Tallahassee and how many of the current legislators don't understand the importance of water quality in this state.

"Many of them are relative newcomers to Florida,” she said. "They didn't grow up here so they haven't grown up watching the rivers dry up and the springs get filled with green algae from nutrient pollution. Also, they are making permitting easier because they think it creates jobs, when in actuality the biggest growth in this state occurred when the environmental laws were the strongest. There is absolutely no evidence that environmental regulation is bad for business - none at all.”

The ease on permitting applies to those seeking permits for water use, too - something Victoria claims is leading the state down a dangerous path.

"Last year West Palm Beach went a week without water,” she said. "This state is way over-permitted when it comes to water. In Florida, water is gold. Natural resources are entitled to have a sufficient amount so they can function.”

Despite the successes this past session, Tschinkel sees a long road ahead.

"Even though they overturned the District takeover, they still have a lot of control over their budgets and the hiring and firing of the executive board members, which has resulted in a lot of experienced scientists and environmentalists who really understand water quality issues losing their jobs,” she said. "And in the future I see more control trying to be taken by Tallahassee. This control is now being centralized between a select few people who are coordinating between the districts and the state capitol.”

Tschinkel's group, the FCC, works with environmental groups statewide to fight for water quality issues. This past Tuesday they delivered a petition signed by over 12,000 people asking Governor Scott to form a committee to look at the nutrient pollution in Silver River State Park - a once clear, pristine spring now choked with mats of bright green algae.

"This is just the beginning of what we can do as a group,” she said. "We will have no power in the future if we don't use our power now.”

Just this week, three local environmental groups apparently decided to do just that when they filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an attempt to force them to change their protocols so that more freshwater is sent down the Caloosahatchee River. The suit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are also named in the lawsuit.

Manley Fuller is president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of the groups filing the lawsuit.

"We're not talking about massive amounts of water here. We're talking about something that would just have a minute effect on any other user. We don't think that this will hurt anybody."

The water from Lake Okeechobee is used to irrigate 500,000 acres of sugarcane fields. Fuller says there is plenty of water, both for the river and agriculture.

The Caloosahatchee is officially designated as a public drinking-water source, although a drinking water plant in Lee County has repeatedly had to shut down because the water is unfit to drink. Glades, Hendry and Lee County public health departments have issued multiple warnings asking people to avoid contact with the river.

"It is my understanding that there is an obligation under the federal clean water act and the state's Chapter 373 to meet state and local water quality laws – they have no immunity that entitles them to avoid this,” said Rae Ann Wessel, a 20-year veteran of Lee's water wars and the Natural Resource Policy Director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). "Together, these laws provide a responsibility to identify how much water is needed and deliver it so the river doesn't experience any harm.”

How this lawsuit will effect local efforts to stop a controversial District proposal called 'back-pumping' remains to be seen.

Next Wednesday evening, August 1st, Water District representatives will give a presentation on changes to the Water District policy on Caloosahatchee River flows, also known as back-pumping. Back-pumping involves pumping excess water from agricultural lands in the EAA into Lake Okeechobee for the purpose of sending it down the river. Environmentalists claim that water is heavily infused with nitrogen and phosphorus, and will likely cause more damage to the river than no water at all.

"For both water quality and for economic reasons, it is inconceivable that anyone would want to initiate back-pumping,” Wessel told us. Look for her Guest Opinion in this edition of the Sand Paper.

The meeting on Wednesday will be followed by a presentation on Thursday by the District's advisory committee – the Water Resources Advisory Commission (WRAC) and a vote on the issue by the District's Executive Board on August 9th. Look to the Sand Paper for continuing coverage on these important issues.

Keri Hendry