By MCKENZIE CASSIDY
Concerned residents of Southwest Florida attended a town hall meeting on water quality in Fort Myers Thursday night, hosted by the City of Sanibel and Lee County.
Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane moderated the session and presentations were made by officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District.
The message from attending officials was that improving water quality isn't as simple as turning up or down the outflow of water from Lake Okeechobee. Instead, their job is a balancing act between above average rainfall, anticipating tropical storm systems, working through a lack of federal funding to maintain a failing dam system, and finding creative ways to store and treat polluted water.
Col. Alan Dodd, commander of the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reported that as of Sept. 5 the water level at Lake Okeechobee was 15.54 feet with 270 cubic-feet per second more water leaving than coming in. But, with two months left in hurricane season, the Army Corps is hoping no tropical storms will increase the levels further, resulting in a need to release more water.
According to Tommy Strowd, assistant executive director of Operations, Maintenance, and Construction for SFWMD, the district's rainfall was 124 percent districtwide or within 18,000 square-miles from Orlando to the Florida Keys.
He said the Army Corps has devoted approximately $2 billion to rehabilitate the Herbert Hoover Dike System by updating culverts originally built in the 1930s and complete a new Dam Safety Modification Study. A total of 35 percent of the Army Corps' national budget is appropriated for dam safety, he added.
State officials are waiting for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Water Resources Development Act, a bill that would authorize funding to complete the C-43 Reservoir in Labelle. Ernie Barnett, interim executive director of the SFWMD, said that the completed C-43 Reservoir would have a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet.
An acre foot is one foot of water covering one acre.
While the U.S. Senate passed WRDA 83-100, according to Sen. Bill Nelson, who addressed the town hall meeting in a prerecorded video, the House has yet to act.
Congressman Trey Radel, a member of the Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure, said WRDA is scheduled for consideration.
"We have seen our beautiful water turn brown. It harms our environment in Southwest Florida and, as we know, when the environment is harmed our economy is harmed," said Radel.
Nelson said there are many sources of pollution besides releases from Lake Okeechobee, but that source is the most visible.
"We have an intolerable situation in the Caloosahatchee," said Nelson. "When the water gets up to 16 feet it starts to create pressure on the dikes surrounding Lake Okeechobee. The Corps is required by statute to maintain that."
Nelson said authorizing C-43 was a short term solution, but in the long term officials must focus on the Central Everglades Planning Project that would begin moving 210,000 acre-feet south into the Everglades, reducing the flow into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins.
But, local environmental officials said at least 1 million acre-feet needs to be moved for any local affect to be seen.
Ray Judah, former Lee County Commissioner and coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, said the CEPP program and the raising of 2.6-miles of Tamiami Trail, recently announced by Gov. Rick Scott, would only be a 10 percent solution.
"When you look at the fact that there were 2.6 million acre-feet of water that went to tide in the east and west coast of South Florida, and now you are only talking about 210,000 acre-feet going to bridging with CEPP, it would appear to me that really the answer is in fact more storage," said Judah.
Judah is advocating for the state to purchase 153,000 acre-feet of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee for $7,400 per acre in a three-year option with U.S. Sugar. The option expires in October and if the state doesn't act, they could face higher prices and competition from other bidders.
"That would alleviate the massive discharge that is harming the estuaries on east and west coast of South Florida," said Judah.
He added that funding to purchase the sugar land could be raised by using BP oil spill money, restructuring the water district's capital improvement program, or bond financing.
Barnett said with the CEPP and raising of Tamiami Trail, approximately 750,000 acre-feet of water is expected to move south through the system in a regular distribution of flow. But, he said, the district isn't in a position to authorize the purchase of sugar land.
"The reality that we are is that the water management district isn't in a position to make a unilateral decision," he said, asking concerned citizens to speak with their elected officials about allocating the funds.
Sanibel residents who attended the town hall meeting were upset about the economic and environmental affects of the freshwater releases.
"We have a couple of restaurants and we employ 200 people and this is an economic issue. This is our BP," said Sanibel Councilmember Marty Harrity. "This is the death of our economy and our neighborhoods."
Harrity said more water needed to go south through state purchased sugar lands.
Michael Goodwin, Sanibel resident, asked the panel why the state hadn't exercised its three-year option with U.S. Sugar.
"The three-year opportunity to purchase land from U.S. Sugar is about to expire at the end of October. Nothing apparently has been done about purchasing that land. Are we going to purchase that land in able to have further run off from Lake Okeechobee or has that opportunity been passed by?" asked Goodwin.
Barnett said the funding wasn't available in the budget to make a bid on the sugar land, but the state has a first right of refusal for seven years after the three-year option expires.
Benacquisto said the water quality issue has been years in the making.
"We will accomplish our goals because we work as a team. Never before have I seen such a coming together and united front to make sure our community's needs are addressed," she said.
Besides finding new options for dispersed water, Benacquisto said she wants to see a study completed on the effect of septic tanks on groundwater and determine the potential benefits of declaring a state of emergency to flood the Everglades Agricultural Area.