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Caloosahatchee minimum flows

By Staff | Sep 24, 2018

Kevin Ruane

On Sept. 13, the South Florida Water Management District considered amendments to the Caloosahatchee Minimum Flow and Level (MFL) Rule. I attended the meeting with three of my fellow Lee County mayors from Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach, and Sanibel Council members Chauncey Goss and Holly Smith. We were accompanied by several business leaders, environmental advocates, and resource managers, all of whom made the three-hour drive (one-way) to oppose the amendments to the Rule. You are probably asking, why would we drive all the way to the east coast to comment on “minimum flows”, when our estuary and coastal communities have been deluged with freshwater for the past four months? I am aware of the irony of the situation, but too little freshwater during the dry season can be equally harmful to our estuary and coastal waters. It can also result in more water being held in Lake Okeechobee and released during the wet season.

The health of our estuary and coastal waters is directly tied to water management policies administered by the SFWMD and US Army Corps of Engineers. The Caloosahatchee routinely receives too much water during the wet season (decisions made by Corps of Engineers), and too little during the dry season (decisions made by SFWMD). Each high or low-flow event that occurs can impact the ability of the estuary to bounce back?limiting important ecosystem services, including habitat for fish and wildlife, water quality benefits, and recreational opportunities.

The SFWMD is the agency responsible for managing water supply for urban, agricultural and environmental uses in South Florida. When conducting water supply planning, the District considers environmental uses differently than other “beneficial uses” like urban and agricultural water supply. When water supply decisions are made, natural systems are typically last in line for water. Many scientists and resource managers I have spoken with argue that these policies are antiquated and environmental uses (e.g., estuarine flows) provide equal or greater economic benefit compared with urban and agricultural uses. Our current water quality crisis supports that argument.

Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) are regulatory tools used to limit impacts to surface waterbodies or aquifers resulting from over allocation of water resources for other uses. An MFL is the “limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area” (Section 373.042(1), Florida Statutes (F.S.)). The Caloosahatchee MFL rule was adopted in 2001. The 2001 rule directly linked freshwater flows with salinity levels, establishing an ecological target to protect tape grass habitat in the estuary-a habitat identified as a “Valued Ecosystem Component” by District scientists.

Water Management District policy decisions between 1999 and 2001 resulted in the loss of approximately 1,000 acres of tape grass habitat between the US-41 bridge and the Cape Coral Parkway bridge. Since the MFL rule was adopted (2001), exceedances have occurred 12 of the past 17 years. The C-43 Reservoir has been identified as the primary “Prevention and Recovery Strategy” for the MFL rule. However, the District is not required to meet the MFL until the C-43 project is completed. The project is not anticipated to be completed until 2022.

Local scientists have been monitoring tape grass habitat and the relationship between freshwater flows and salinity for decades. Based on measured data, flows needed to maintain appropriate salinities are significantly greater than flows proposed by District staff. This was again confirmed by data collected from January to May 2018. Despite numerous technical comment letters and concerns from agencies and local scientists, and our communities’ appeal to reject staff’s proposed updates, the Governing Board voted unanimously to move forward with updating the rule.

I am of the mind that government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. This has gone on for far too long in South Florida. When considering the impacts of regulations, perhaps agencies should consider all economic impacts associated with their decisions. Water management policies must be overhauled to address the inequities to the Caloosahatchee, the economic impacts to our local communities, and recognize the benefit of tourism to our State’s economy.

Kevin Ruane is mayor of the city of Sanibel, president-elect of the Florida League of Mayors and a local business owner. He has served as mayor since 2010 and has been a member of the Sanibel City Council since 2007. He was the recipient of the prestigious Everglades Coalition James D. Webb public service award in 2016, and in 2017 he was awarded the Florida League of Cities Home Rule Hero award for his advocacy efforts on water quality and home rule.