It is a busy time for water issues
Because the Florida Legislative session has ended and the rainy season hasn’t yet begun, it would be easy to think that we are in the doldrums relative to water issues. Nothing could be further from the truth. As described below, there is a tremendous amount of activity on several issues that directly impact the quantity and quality of the water that surrounds the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
CALOOSAHATCHEE MINIMUM FLOW LEVEL RULE
The South Florida Water Management District is responsible for establishing minimum flows for rivers, streams and estuaries. The MFL for the Caloosahatchee that was established in 2001 included a minimum flow of water that had to occur to achieve a salinity target that scientists believe is needed to ensure the health of the river. In 2018, the SFWMD proposed to a new rule that eliminated the salinity target. The city of Sanibel, among others, filed a suit to challenge the proposed new rule.
Although the suit was unsuccessful, at its April meeting the SFWMD board asked its staff to re-examine the issue. There has already been one open meeting on the issue and there will be a second meeting on June 20. The staff intends to make a recommendation relative to the Caloosahatchee MFL to the SFWMD board at its July 11 meeting.
The C-43 reservoir is being built by the SFWMD in Hendry County. When completed in 2023, the reservoir will hold roughly 55 billion gallons of water. One reason the reservoir is important is because it will reduce unwanted flows to the refuge by capturing and storing runoff from the Caloosahatchee River basin, as well as water that is released from Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir will also improve the salinity along the Caloosahatchee estuary by providing necessary flows during the dry season.
Until earlier this year there was not an agreed-upon plan to implement any water treatment for the C-43 reservoir. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that calls for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to work with the SFWMD to add water treatment to the reservoir. Recently an interagency group was formed to identify at least three feasible ways to add water quality treatment to the C-43 reservoir. The group plans on holding public meeting starting in the fall and has the goal of completing the study within 18 months.
EAA RESERVOIR, TAMIAMI TRAIL
In addition to the progress being made on the C-43 reservoir, progress is also being made on two other critical water-related projects. In early June, the SFWMD announced that it will begin construction of the EAA reservoir and an associated stormwater treatment area (STA) 18 months earlier than previously planned. The EAA is now expected to be completed in 2027. The completion date for the STA had been 2024. A revised completion date for the STA in not yet available.
In early June, DeSantis announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation had matched the state of Florida’s $40 million for the Tamiami Trail by awarding an additional $60 million. This means that Phase II of the project to raise the Tamiami Trail is fully funded. When complete, the project will allow more water to flow south to Everglades National Park and, hence, less water will have to flow from Lake Okeechobee to the refuge.
HEIGHT OF LAKE OKEECHOBEE
On June 6, the height of Lake Okeechobee was 10.94 feet. This is significantly lower than it was at this time last year. That is good news for the refuge, because it reduces the likelihood that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to make massive releases from the lake. However, not everyone is happy with the lake being low. Many people who make their living in the Lake Okeechobee area say that the lower level has reduced their business by 80 percent.
This is not the only group alarmed about the height of the water in the lake. Several East Coast communities, such as West Palm Beach, rely on Lake Okeechobee for drinking water. They are concerned that a low lake level, combined with a drought, will result in insufficient drinking water.
Several organizations have been hosting informative workshops and webinars on a broad range of water quality topics. These include:
– In early June, the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership hosted an all-day workshop that covered several topics relative to the C-43 reservoir.
– The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently hosted a series of six half-hour webinars on topics related to water management in South Florida.
– The SFWMD has been holding monthly workshops on water-related topics.
Another source of education is a Web page hosted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at floridadep.gov/algalbloom, which contains a dashboard that highlights the status of algal blooms. The site also contains FAQs, information on health risks and a way to subscribe to weekly updates.
Sarah Ashton and Jim Metzler are the co-chairs for the Advocacy Committee for the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge. For more information, visit www.dingdarlingsociety.org.