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EDITORIAL: Fighting for fair treatment from water managers

By Staff | Dec 16, 2010

From a very young age, we are taught how to share. The concept of fairness, equity and balance in our lives is one of the fundamental elements passed down from generation to generation.

But apparently, for some of the folks sitting on the South Florida Water Management District’s Board of Directors, the concept of fair treatment has been lost on them.

Last week, the board voted 8-3 in favor of unilaterally cutting off water supplies for the Caloosahatchee, one day before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) continued — for the third consecutive seven-day period — water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

According to the USACE, the pulse-like release mimics basin response to a rainfall event. Their water management experts expect this release to help push back saltwater intrusion, which will have other associated benefits to the estuary.

However, the South Florida Water Management District decided to cease releases to the west of Lake Okeechobee entirely, while at the same time allowing releases to the east to remain unchanged.

It seems like during hurricane season, too much water is released this way. In the dry season, we don’t get any water. We don’t think that’s fair. And neither does Rae Ann Wessel, Public Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF).

On Tuesday, Wessel suggested that it is completely unfair to single out the Caloosahatchee for water restrictions when no other users are being required to cut back. She called the inequity “an issue of fundamental fairness.”

While the USACE has been working cooperatively with SCCF and other concerned governmental entities (including the City of Sanibel) and private water-focused organizations (like PURRE), the leaders in charge of the South Florida Water Management District apparently aren’t listening to the concerns of Southwest Florida’s citizens.

That’s why Wessel is requesting more action from Island Reporter readers.

“This is a public policy issue that’s vitally important,” she said. “We need to make a unified and uniform message to the board.”

First and foremost, the district needs to understand that because our river and estuary needs fresh water flow during the dry season to support fisheries and their habitat, continuing releases to the Caloosahatchee is critical.

According to Wessel, last week’s official manatee count conducted in Lee County revealed a population of 706 mature manatees and 46 calves. Because these mammals require an ample supply of fresh water and sea grasses, manatees expel a great amount of energy to travel up the Caloosahatchee to find viable tape grass beds to feed themselves and their young.

Second, the board should support natural systems by sharing available water between all users and apply water cutbacks equally.

Not only is there not a water shortage presently (as of Tuesday morning, the Lake Okeechobee water level stood at 12.64 feet), but the vast majority of permitted users to the east of the lake — the heart of Florida’s agricultural industry — have experienced record harvests this year.

So we get cut off and their water supply remains unchallenged? Again, that simply is not fair.

We recommend making a phone call or sending an e-mail to the South Florida Water Management District’s policy makers (whose names and contact information is provided below) to let them know that this inequity has to be stopped. A more consistent water management plan, which will promote slow-pulse releases both east and west of the lake, should be demanded.

During this past hurricane season, as the lake swelled above 15 feet, the district released massive quantities of water only to the Caloosahatchee. The nutrient-rich water, according to scientific experts, can trigger growth of harmful brown algae and damage the delicate ecosystem of our inlets and estuaries. That was unfair, because canals east of the lake were not subject to the same releases. This practice must be stopped, too.

The district commissioners are:

Chairman Eric Buermann — (305) 446-0045, ebuermann@sfwmd.gov

Vice-Chair Jerry Montgomery — (561) 682-6433, jmontgom@sfwmd.gov

Sandy Batchelor — (561) 682-6433, sbatchel@sfwmd.gov

Joe Collins — jcollins@sfwmd.gov

Charles Dauray — cjdauray@embarqmail.com

Kevin Powers — kpowers@sfwmd.gov

Glenn Waldman — gwaldman@sfwmd.gov

In addition, Wessel recommended contacting USACE figureheads Col. Al Pantano (Alfred.A.Pantano@usace.army.mil) and Lt. Col. Michael Kinard (Michael.K.Kinard@usace.army.mil) to thank them for their continued support of protecting the Caloosahatchee.

— Reporter editorial