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SFWMD mismanaging water, blames Corps of Engineers

By Staff | Mar 16, 2011

Water supply for the health of the Caloosahatchee estuary is under attack. For the past six weeks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been providing needed freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee to maintain the health of the upper estuary. Without freshwater inflow during the dry season, high salinities extend all the way up river to the WP Franklin Lock structure, eliminating all the low salinity, freshwater habitat in the estuary. This low salinity zone in the Caloosahatchee is critical habitat for the reproduction and survival of economically important fishery species including bay anchovy, drum, silver perch, redfish, snook, crabs, shrimp and tapegrass. While the Corps has been providing freshwater to support critical habitat in the Caloosahatchee, the state water agency, the South Florida Water Management District, has repeatedly recommended cutting off all flow to the Caloosahatchee due to low water conditions in Lake Okeechobee. According to the SFWMD, October through March has been the driest in 80 years and water demands are high now at the peak of the dry season. But the minimal base flows the Corps has been providing to the Caloosahatchee require less than one inch of water per month off the lake — an amount District staff characterized as insignificant — while permitted users such as municipal water suppliers and agriculture use several inches of water off the lake each month. Permitted water users pay nothing for the water but their supply is protected and assured, unlike the natural system.

In the drought years of 2007-2009 lack of flow caused a quantifiable loss of habitat for commercially important food and recreational species and placed endangered species at risk. In contrast, during those drought years while the Caloosahatchee was suffering loss of habitat, record agricultural harvests were recorded. Harvest data is available at www.nass.usda.gov/QuickStats/PullData_US_CNTY.jsp.

While the District professes to be concerned about water shortages, they have instituted no conservation or water restrictions on major water users. They recommend only cutting off water to the Caloosahatchee. If water shortage fears are the reason for cutting off the minimal flows to our estuary and water shortage is expected and forecast, why have mandatory water restrictions not been implemented District wide?

Part of the problem is that 20 year consumptive use water permits have been issued by the SFWMD to private enterprises without first setting aside an allocation of water for natural systems. This has led to an over allocation of the water available in the Lake Okeechobee/Caloosahatchee basins, and a continuing shortfall of water supply for the estuary.

The showdown came at last Thursday’s SFWMD Governing Board meeting. Chairman-elect Joe Collins berated the Corps of Engineers for providing minimal base flows to the Caloosahatchee against the District’s recommendation of no flow, in spite of the objections of our representative Vice Chair-elect Charles Dauray.

For now, the lake level remains in the zone where the Corps controls releases and they have committed to continuing flows for the benefit of the Caloosahatchee estuary. Unfortunately, receding lake levels will soon drop the lake below the water shortage line, at which point decisions on where, when and how much water is distributed will revert to the SFWMD.

Florida water law states public water should be managed to support public resources first, not last. We encourage letters to the Corps and SFWMD regarding how water is managed and decisions are made. Thank the Corps for providing water to the Caloosahatchee and Charles Dauray for his support. Demand that the SFWMD put public resources first and apply conservation measures equally across all users.

Col Alfred Pantano: alfred.a.pantano@usace.army.mil

Carol Wehle: executivedirector@sfwmd.gov

SFWMD Governing Board:

Eric Buermann – ebuermann@sfwmd.gov

Sandy Batchelor – sbatchel@sfwmd.gov

Joe Collins – jcollins@sfwmd.gov

Kevin Powers – kpowers@sfwmd.gov

Glen Waldman – gwaldman@sfwmd.gov

Charles Dauray – cjdauray@embarqmail.com