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Water district nixes request for higher dry season flows

By Staff | Sep 21, 2018

Kevin Ruane

Lee County estuaries still may not get enough fresh water when it is needed and, perhaps worse, may continue to get way too much of it when it rains.

Only a slight increase in the minimum flows and levels criteria during the dry season for the Caloosahatchee River was recently approved by the water management district’s board, despite pleas from Southwest Florida leaders and other regional stakeholders that a higher target is needed.

On Sept. 13, Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane attended the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board’s monthly meeting in West Palm Beach, joined by City Councilmembers Chauncey Goss and Holly Smith, Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, Fort Myers Beach Mayor Tracey Gore and Fort Myers Mayor Randall Henderson Jr., along with the mayors from Bonita Springs and Estero.

“Several business leaders from Sanibel went, as well,” he said.

The board was considering a proposed amendment to raise the minimum flows and levels (MFL) criteria for the Caloosahatchee from a 30-day moving average flow of 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs at the Franklin Lock (S-79), while maintaining a 30-day moving average salinity of 10 practical salinity units (psu) at the Fort Myers salinity monitoring station.

“We all gave public comment,” Ruane said. “We all indicated that we need at least 720 cfs.”

He explained that real-time data from the city’s Natural Resources Department, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and other area scientists and conservation groups has revealed that a higher MFL for Lake Okeechobee releases in the dry season is needed to maintain the salinity level and ecosystems of the Caloosahatchee Estuary, including the upper estuary.

“During the dry season, we need fresh water,” Ruane said.

Those who attended also pointed out that a higher MFL than the proposed 400 cfs would help to draw more water out of the lake in the dry season, enabling it to hold more water during the wet season.

Don Medellin, a principal scientist with the district’s Applied Sciences Bureau, conducted a presentation for the board on how staff arrived at the recommended increase to 400 cfs.

In 2010, the board provided direction and funding to implement 11 new research studies on the Caloosahatchee to re-evaluate the existing MFL rule, which took place from 2011-2016. The studies ranged from oyster habitat and blue crabs, to water quality, and inflow versus salinity. Some were completed using modeling rather than real sampling, such as a model exploration of tape grass.

Workshops, symposiums and peer reviews were then held, followed by public workshops.

Medellin explained for the board that the recommended 100 cfs increase was based on the compilation of the scientific studies, monitoring, modeling, technical evaluations, peer review and public input.

During public comment, Ruane pointed out that more than 1,000 acres of tape grass has been permanently lost over the last 17 years because of the current MFL of 300 cfs. He and others, like SCCF’s Natural Resources Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel, noted that the request for a higher cfs increase than 400 is based on real-life real-time data, instead of on models like in the studies.

Wessel added that 700 cfs is at the harm threshold – for tape grass to “survive,” not recover.

Others who spoke asked that the board hold off on voting until the concerns raised could be further vetted or until the Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir project is finished.

Several on the board disagreed with waiting.

“I think the time is now to make this happen,” Board Member Jaime Weisinger, adding that the staff recommendation is based on real science and the district will continue to re-evaluate the MFL.

Board Member Dan O’Keefe agreed with taking action.

“This should be subject to updated data and more current criteria,” he said, noting that the board can revisit the issue if it is determined a MFL increase is needed. “I think we need to stay on top of it.”

Board Member James Moran questioned staff about what the consequences to the system would be if the board decided to consider and voted in support of a higher MFL, such as the requested 720 cfs.

Terrie Bates, head of the district’s Water Resources, reiterated that the recommended 400 cfs is a minimum number, not an operational number. She added that if a higher minimum is approved, then additional projects like the C-43 may be required to be able to meet and maintain the higher flow.

Bates explained that the staff recommendation is based on what the district’s current and planned projects can handle. If more projects are needed, the district would have to find ways to fund them.

Chairman Federico Fernandez asked if the board voted in favor of the 400 cfs and it was later determined that a higher MFL is needed whether it would take another eight years to get it done.

“That, to me, raises concerns and questions,” he said.

District Executive Director Ernie Marks suggested focusing more on the restoration target for downstream of the Calooshatchee and needed projects, then bringing those before the board. Bates added that the district is implementing adaptive management, better flow monitoring and such.

“We continue to gain new science and bring that forward as it comes to light,” she said.

Fernandez followed up with his thoughts before calling for a vote.

“I think it’s fair to say, and this is to be very clear, if at some point in the near future when we are finally turning on some of these elements that we’re banking on, (if) we need to revisit this, I think this board is going to aggressively pursue doing so in light of all of the very well-founded concerns,” he said.

The board voted unanimously for the amendment as worded.

“They catered to one part of the system, which is water supply, and they don’t look at the estuaries,” Ruane said, explaining that the water stored during the dry season is used for agricultural lands.

“We, obviously, were neglected. Our request wasn’t honored,” he added. “And, quite frankly, they did harm to the estuary by not doing that.”

In response to the board and staff’s comments that the new minimum is only a minimum and that the district can release more water if it is needed, Ruane pointed out that city officials requested additional releases from January to May to help maintain the salinity level and ecosystem and they were denied.

“Why would we think anything different would take place this year?” he said of the coming dry season.

At the time, the Caloosahatchee was receiving a flow of 650 cfs and it was not enough.

As a result, the river exceeded the MFL salinity criteria of 10 psu for 89 days.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve asked for this. I’ve gone over before, I’ve made calls to all the board members,” Ruane said of the district. “It seems it’s business as usual to ignore the West Coast.”

Others who voiced opposition at the meeting to the amendment included representatives from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sanibel and Captiva Islands Association of Realtors, Committee of the Islands and National Parks Conservation Association, along with on-island business owners.