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Bold leadership needed to protect Caloosahatchee and Everglades

By Staff | Jul 27, 2012

The past six years, drought has seriously impacted Caloosahatchee water quality and devastated estuarine and freshwater habitats – habitats that are nurseries for protected species, recreational fisheries and seafood.

Drought conditions have been made worse by water management practices and policy decisions that single out the Caloosahatchee estuary, depriving it of needed water even when there are absolutely no restrictions on water use for other permitted users. Our water quality and economy suffer as a result.

Each drought year there has been water available for the Caloosahatchee, but it has been directed to other users due to a protocol adopted by the South Florida Water Management District. This protocol was designed to help water managers make decisions about where and how much water to deliver, particularly during droughts and the dry season. Our District Governing Board representative, Dan DeLisi has challenged the staff to find alternatives to rectify this unacceptable inequity.

Last month district staff revealed alternatives and their preferred plan called “Water Supply Augmentation.” WSA or water supply backpumping would pump excess, nutrient-polluted water from the Everglades agricultural fields into Lake O in order to meet the dry season and drought needs of the Caloosahatchee. WSA is not a new alternative, but rather a version of an already tried and failed policy that negatively impacts the ecological integrity of water quality and aquatic habitats – in both Lake O and the Caloosahatchee – which in turn hurts our local and regional economy.

For these reasons SCCF cannot support the district recommended proposal known as Water Supply Augmentation. The good news is that there are alternatives and adaptations that can improve conditions without backpumping.

Backpumping has very significant costs to the ecological health of our natural resources and economy by undermining taxpayers’ significant public investment in restoration by continuing to allow the dumping of nutrient pollution into Lake O where costs to clean it up are transferred to the public.

Backpumping will add significant volumes of damaging nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – into the already impaired waters of Lake O, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, undermining efforts to meet the state required water quality targets.

District estimates reveal that 359 metric tons of nitrogen will be added into Lake O, a naturally nitrogen-limited water body. That could cause potentially perpetual harmful algal blooms as the additional nutrients recycle within the lake to feed future algae blooms, all the while decreasing oxygen and sand bottom habitat for this extraordinary recreational resource.

To add some perspective, the lake’s TMDL restoration target is 104 metric tons of phosphorus. We are nowhere close to achieving that level: currently, 300-400 MT are introduced each year. Backpumping would add an additional 10 MT of phosphorous per year or 10 percent of the state’s mandated target. This completely undermines any chance of reaching the goal.

This additional nutrient load will also be exported to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in lake discharges during high flow conditions, undermining our local communities’ investment in meeting our state mandated nitrogen removal targets.

Lee County has been working to clean nitrogen from a tributary to Estero Bay at a cost of $638 per pound per year, exclusive of land and Operation & Maintenance costs. So conservatively the cost to clean up the additional nitrogen alone would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Who pays that bill?

Backpumping is not an option we can afford. Transferring the obligation for clean up from the polluter to the public increases the cost of cleanup and transfers the financial obligation and expense to the public taxpayer.

It adds up to real money. To comply with a Federal Court Order, the SFWMD has submitted a plan for cleaning up Everglades water quality, an investment of $880 million dollars. This is the bill coming due from decades of decisions that put off addressing nutrient loading at the source, leaving that obligation for future generations. We are that future generation, the bill is due and we are obligated to pay for cleaning up what was neglected in the past. WSA will continue to degrade water quality while we pay to clean up the current condition. This is a formula that assures no chance of success.

The good news is that there are alternatives that protect the public economy, the ecological resources and the future growth of this state. There are alternatives in the operation of the system, in the protocols for deciding when, where and how much water is delivered to competing users. In addition, the RESTORE Act recently passed by Congress can provide needed funding for construction of the C43 Reservoir to capture and provide water within the Caloosahatchee’s watershed. Shared prosperity depends on shared adversity.

We need bold leadership that will stop the failed public policy practices that got us here in the first place by passing responsibility to the next governing board, the next administration, the next generation to clean up. If not now, when? If not us, who?

We need your voice to reach out to the SFWMD Governing Board before their vote on August 9. Please write to the members of the Governing board, Secretary of DEP and Governor Scott. Urge them to find mutually sustainable solutions and not rely on reruns of past failed water policy.