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Water Woes

09/26/2013 at 2:22pm

Rainy Day FMBWater Woes: News From the Water Front
Photo by: James Royce

After a drier than normal August, September has been a soaker - dumping rainfall that is 40% higher than average for this time of year. That, of course, has caused our summer-long water woes to continue as last week the Army Corps of Engineers once more increased releases from bloated Lake Okeechobee - now back up to a dike-threatening 15.9 feet and rising. There have been several recent developments in the local water wars, however: Tuesday, folks from throughout the state - including Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane - spoke at Senator Joe Negron's second meeting of the Senate Select committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin, held in Tallahassee. On Wednesday night, former County Commissioner Ray Judah brought his public forum panel "Coastal Estuaries on Peril” to Pink Shell Resort. Last Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting to discuss the draft report for the Central Everglades Planning Project and this week, Florida Governor Rick Scott sent President Obama a letter where he personally invited the president to view the devastation caused by the excessive releases in an effort to persuade him to fast track federal support of projects like the C-111 Spreader Canal in Everglades National Park and the C-43 Reservoir in eastern Hendry County.

At the Senate Select Committee (formed in July by Senate President Don Gaetz and chaired by Senator Negron) meeting on Tuesday, Negron announced that he will seek $1 million for oyster and seagrass bed restoration projects that will help improve water quality in both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries. On September 12th, the Legislative Budget Commission - co-chaired by Negron - allocated $2.77 million to improve pump stations and to build a channel to aid water flow across Highway 41, which acts as a barrier as it crosses the southern Everglades.

At Tuesday's meeting Negron accused the Army Corps of Engineers of "over-reacting to weather” and "putting way more emphasis on a dike problem and totally under-estimating the economic damage to our communities.”

Mayor Ruane agrees, saying he and four other local mayors - Fort Myers Beach Mayor Mandel, Bonita Springs' Mayor Nelson, Ft. Myers Mayor Henderson and Cape Coral Mayor Sullivan - sent a letter to Negron urging him to put pressure on the Corps to change the way risk assessment is evaluated in the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS) and to move the measuring point permanently to the Franklin Locks so folks can have a better understanding of exactly how much water is being flushed down the river.

"I got there a couple of days early and had meetings with everyone on the Select Committee, and they are all in agreement that LORS needs to be reevaluated,” Ruane told us. "I believe there is a direct correlation with the pressure that the committee put on the Corps following the last meeting in Stuart and the fact that the releases slowed down shortly after.”

Mayor Ruane said that Negron even stated that the Corps should not be allowed to "be judge, jury and executioner” when it comes to making decisions about when water should or should not be released from the lake.

On Monday, 38 environmental groups from across the state wrote a letter to Governor Scott urging him to exercise the state's 3-year option to buy the remaining U.S. Sugar lands before the deal expires on October 12th. The state has the option of purchasing either a specifically identified 46,800 acres or the entire 153,000 at a fixed price of $7,400 per acre, and most agree that the land would provide the necessary 1.5 million acre feet of water storage and treatment needed to solve our water problem. The purchase doesn't seem likely, however, as the South Florida Water Management District Assistant Executive Director - Ernie Barnett - told the Select Committee on Tuesday that the District isn't looking to buy any more land. He also said that the state still has an option to buy the land even after the Oct. 12thdeadline but the price would have to be renegotiated.

After receiving the letter about the land purchase, Governor Scott wrote a letter of his own the following day, accusing the Obama Administration of not following through on promises to fix the Herbert Hoover dike and to fund much-needed water projects. He also invited the President to come to south Florida "to tour impacted areas and see how the federal government’s shortcomings have affected families.”

Shortly before press time, the Sand Paper received the following response to Governor Scott's letter to President Obama:

"The President remains committed to the Administration's partnership with the state of Florida in our shared goal of restoring the Florida Everglades. The Administration has identified the Everglades as one of five high-priority, nationally significant ecosystems, and views rehabilitating the Herbert Hoover Dike as a priority. The Army Corps has completed studies for four projects that would help reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges into these estuaries or would otherwise advance Everglades' restoration efforts, and is waiting on Congressional approval before they can move forward."

-- Joanna Rosholm, White House spokesperson

At Wednesday night's water forum at Pink Shell, Judah, Sanibel/Captiva Conservation Foundation Director RaeAnn Wessel and Conservancy of Southwest Florida Director Jennifer Hecker told the group of about 30 residents and business owners to keep up the pressure on their state and federal legislators.

"If you look at the charts, you can see that we've had the same average rainfall since 1940,” said Hecker. "The problem is in the way the water is managed, period.”

Environmental advocates have long emphasized that the Lake O discharge problem is not just too much water, but the quality of the water that must be addressed.

We asked Judah why the Corps isn't including spillways - to move water south - in their plans to reconstruct areas of the Herbert Hoover dike, and he told us "they are planning to do a risk assessment in 2015 to determine if the spillways are needed”.

"They need to be doing this at the same time as the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) is being constructed so that pulse releases can be sent south instead of east or west,” he said. "My hope is that they expedite their plans for the risk assessment.”

At the end of the meeting, a resident asked if there were any interest from Big Sugar in addressing the coast's water issues and Wessel replied that their solution has always been to fix the dike so more water can stay in the lake.

"But they know that won't work because if the lake stays above 16 feet, then the marsh that's within the lake dies - meaning no clean water and no fish,” she said.

At the federal level, the House of Representatives will be considering the 2013 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) as they meet during the month of October. Next week, Mayor Alan Mandel and Mayor Ruane will accompany Lee County Commission Vice-Chair Larry Kiker to Washington D.C. to speak at a special hearing on our water issues that is being chaired by Representative Trey Radel. They also plan to meet with members of the appropriations committee to ensure that important projects - including the C-43 Reservoir and possibly CEPP - will be funded if WRDA passes the House.

Keri Hendry Weeg