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Water Quality

07/01/2014 at 1:53pm

Water ForumCaldwell, Judah Speak on Water Quality

With the sparkling blue waters of the Caloosahatchee River as backdrop, Representative Matt Caldwell, Representative Dane Eagle, former Lee County Commission Chairman Ray Judah, Sanibel Director of Natural Resources James Evans and South Florida Water Management Chief of Staff Dan Delisi spoke at a luncheon panel hosted by the Tiger Bay Club at the City Pier building that once housed the Art of the Olympians Museum in downtown Fort Myers. Each of the panelists were given five minutes to explain what they believe needs to be done to fix our water issues, after which they were given several minutes to answer questions from the audience.

Judah spoke first, saying that while things are calm right now, Plan 6 is the only solution to avoid a repeat of 2013, where excessive releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee caused the deaths of hundreds of manatees and sea turtles.

"The federal government has agreed to the $621 million Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), but it still has to make it through appropriations to get funded,” he said. "When you look at the C-43 Reservoir, the numbers are not adding up. In an average year, 325 billion gallons are released from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River, and last year that number was closer to 500 billion. "C-43 will hold 170,000 acre feet of water. During the wet season, water is often released at the rate of 9300 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is equivalent to 6 billion gallons per day, so C-43 would fill up in 11 days. Plus, there is no water quality component, so base flows sent down the river in the dry season will be full of toxic blue green algae. Another big project that is being planned is CEPP - which is a wonderful project to improve the southern end of the Everglades, but if it's not built in concert with a flow way south, it's effect will be limited. Plan 6 is the only way."

Dan Delisi said that C-43 was never intended to provide much relief for excessive water releases but rather as a place to store some water for when it is needed in the dry season.

"We are trying to bring perspective to this issue - Plan 6 will cost over $20 billion,” he said. "This is a huge issue that we are discussing. What we are doing, we're building storage south of the lake and we're breaking loose long-stalled projects. Flow ways are great, but if you can't get the water under US 41, it's acts as a dam. No project will be the perfect solution, but we need to start building things and getting the ball rolling forward. It's been 15 years and we haven't started building a single thing in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP, passed by the federal government as part of the 2000 WRDA).”

James Evans explained he’d been asked to represent original invitee Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane on the panel. Evans has served as the Sanibel Director of Natural Resources for the past two years.

"The Florida Association of Realtors has made this their number one project, and we need to get things started,” he said. "I think Plan 6 definitely has a place, but unfortunately our current governor has been very outspoken against it, so while we still need to consider Plan 6, we have move forward now on with things we can change. The river needs the minimum flows, and 38% of dry season flows will be addressed by C-43. Big projects will take years.”

Matt Caldwell gave folks a history lesson on water in south Florida, saying that the system was originally designed to do precisely what it's doing right now.

"Everyone cares about all of these things, it comes down to priorities and timing,” he said. "We are the ones that created this system. Back in 1845, the state of Florida asked for ownership of all of this land for the express purpose of draining it for farms and towns. Tourism was non-existent then - agriculture was what put food on the table. After a huge flood in 1947 caused the massive loss of agricultural production, the state asked the federal government to fix that problem - that's how we ended up with the Herbert Hoover dike around Lake O. In 1947, almost no one lived on any of the barrier islands, so using the river as a flush valve was the expressed desire. So how do we fix it now? The summertime excess will be addressed by partnership with federal government on projects like CEPP, CERP, and the Modified Waters Deliveries project (known as MOD Waters). This will never be solved on our own; we will have to join with the Army Corps of Engineers, as they own the dike. The other half of the equation - the winter when we need water - is what I'm very involved with.”

The first question put to the panel asked what back pumping is and what damage it causes.

"The system was originally designed so that the northern third of the Everglades Agricultural Areas (EAA) flowed back into Lake O, in the 80's we decided to prohibit that, so now there's less than half of one percent of total lake water coming back, and none of that flows down either the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie Rivers,” Delisi said, but Judah vehemently disagreed.

"I have a slide showing all the land south of the lake being flooded except for the EAA, where water must be maintained between 18 and 24 inches underground so the sugarcane can grow,” Judah said. "To do that they have to back-pump extra water into Lake Okeechobee. Just recently, a judge in the Federal District Court of New York determined that back-pumping violates the Clean Water Act.

Caldwell says it's hard to get anything done when litigation is involved, and that the decision in the 90's to require waters to be clean of phosphorous hinders the state's ability to send water south.

When asked about the true purpose of C-43, Caldwell said that - in the very driest part of the year - saltwater from the Gulf pushes against freshwater in the river to the point where it actually flows backwards.

"You need a constant flow to push against that saltwater to keep it out of the upper river, and there are lots of little projects that will help that I've tried to make a priority,” he said.

Evans pointed out that about 50% of water flowing into the estuary is from local runoff.

"We need to get a lot of little projects going to help with that and use C-43 for dry season,” he said. "There are any number of things we can do to create circulation in that reservoir - it's not simply going to be a holding pond.”

Judah said that C-43 was originally part of the Acceler8 plan created by then-Governor Jeb Bush in 2004 to kick start CERP.

"It will be an incubator for blue green algae because there's no way to clean out the nitrogen and phosphorous,” he said. "And it's ridiculous to think Plan 6 will cost $20 billion. Only 15% of the entire sugarcane land holdings is needed to build that flow-way.”

The Tiger Bay Club of Southwest Florida is a non-partisan organization that provides its members and interested citizens current information about civic, governmental and political issues important to Southwest Florida at the local, state and federal levels. For more information, visit www.swfltigerbay.com.

Keri Hendry Weeg