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Update on water-related issues

By Staff | Apr 21, 2020

For good reason, right now everyone’s attention is focused on the coronavirus. However, we will get through this pandemic and when we do, there will still be water quality issues that impact the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. With that in mind, this column gives a brief update on some key water quality issues.

SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT

In February, the South Florida Water Management District issued a “Request For Bids (RFBs)” for the construction of an inflow/outflow canal that will bring water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir and its associated Stormwater Treatment Area (STA). The construction of this canal is critical to the successful functioning of the EAA Reservoir. As described in a previous column, the reservoir will significantly improve water quality in the refuge.

In March, the SFWMD issued an RFB for the use of innovative technologies to remove phosphorous from the C-59 canal surface waters in Okeechobee County before the enter Lake Okeechobee. The goal of this project is to reduce the development of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the northern part of the lake. As described in a previous column, using innovative technologies to reduce HABs was one of the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

As described in a previous column, the C-43 reservoir, which the SFWMD is building, is important to the refuge in part 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. In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that called for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to work with the SFWMD to add water treatment to the reservoir. To achieve that goal, an interagency group formed to perform a feasibility study on ways to add water quality treatment to the C-43 reservoir. On March 25, that group held a workshop, the goals of which were to inform the public about the feasibility study and to solicit input and ideas from the public. Due to concerns about public health, the meeting was held online. To gain a better understanding of the workings of the SFWMD, watch the March 12 meeting video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5r9tfk3on0.

BLUE-GREEN ALGAE TASK FORCE

A previous column described recommendations that the Blue-Green Algae Task Force made at the end of 2019. The first meeting of the task force in 2020 was scheduled for March 16, however, due to concerns about public health, that meeting was postponed to a yet unspecified date.

RED TIDE TASK FORCE

The goals of the Red Tide Task Force were described in a previous column. In February, the task force released a set of initial recommendations. Recommended actions were identified in four areas:

– Public health: Improving the knowledge of the effects of red tide on human health

– Communications: Improving communication and education about red tide

– Management and response: Developing a comprehensive and integrated response plan

– Research: Enhancing research and innovation that will yield beneficial management tools

A meeting to discuss the recommended actions and to provide for public comment and participation was originally scheduled for March 19, but because some of the members developed a conflict and could not attend the meeting, the next meeting is now scheduled for April 22.

U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS

In a previous column, we discussed how one of the primary determinants of the water level in the Caloosahatchee River is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ water control plan, referred to as the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). We also described how the Army Corps has begun a four-year study that will result in replacing LORS with new guidelines for the operation of Lake Okeechobee, referred to as the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).

To create LOSOM, the Army Corps has created the LOSOM Project Delivery Team (PDT), whose members include only the federal officials and elected officers of state, local, or tribal governments, or their designated employees with authority to act on their behalf in their official capacities.

A video of their their Jan. 30 meeting is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7yBzpBqaZE). The March 31 meeting, which was originally scheduled to be held in Okeechobee, has been canceled. The LOSOM PDT’s next meeting will be in April and will be an online Web meeting.

FLORIDA LEGISLATURE

As reported in the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Legislative Tracker, in the recently concluded Florida Legislative session, the Everglades received $327 million for restoration projects. A previous column explained the impact of the Florida Forever Land Acquisition Program on the refuge. In the recently concluded session, this program received $100 million, which is an improvement over the fiscal year 2019-2020 allocation of $33 million but falls far short of the $300 million the program received annually prior to 2014.

Senate Bill 712 was intended to be the mechanism by which some of the key recommendations of Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force would become law. As is typically the case, the original bill was modified by a series of amendments prior to being approved by the Legislature.

The final bill contains several water quality initiatives which can be built upon including addressing wastewater treatment facility infrastructure, septic tank regulations, and increased fines. Critics of the bill point out that a major failing of the bill is in failure to address agricultural pollution through modifying the current Best Management Program (BMP) that sets no pollution limits and provides agriculture a presumption of compliance with water quality standards.

CONCLUSIONS

While the coronavirus has captured the attention of virtually all of us, most of the primary drivers of improving our water quality and quantity continue to function. While the progress has been less than what one could have hoped for, in general, things are moving in a direction that is positive for the refuge. However, in addition to all the other destruction that it has already caused, the coronavirus presents a couple of challenges to continued progress on water quality issues. One challenge is the logistical problems that are created in a time of social distancing and that might result from the governor’s recent Safer-at-Home order. Another challenge is that the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus has the potential to limit Florida’s ability to continue to fully fund some of the ongoing restoration projects.

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.