With the impending wet season ready to return in two to three months, Councilman Alan Mandel has remained active during the dry season by keeping the pressure on water management officials when it comes to water quality in the surrounding Fort Myers Beach community.
Each summer, heavy rains fill Lake Okeechobee causing high flow regulatory freshwater releases to be discharged from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This creates a disproportionate mix of fresh and salt water that eventually creates damage to the estuaries' coastal habitats. The lake releases are also known to involve back-pumped nutrient-rich water with large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that negatively affects water quality.
Mandel took part in a rescheduled meeting last week in downtown Fort Myers with members of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District and two other municipalities.
"Our focus was what can we do now to prevent what happened last summer," he said.
Chaired by state DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard, the meeting also included DEP Communications Director Kendra Parson; SFWMD board member Mitch Hutchcraft; Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki; and Sanibel Environmental Biologist James Evans. The meeting was requested by Mandel and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, who was in Tallahassee and could not attend. Both officials were stranded in Washington D.C. during the prior scheduled engagement.
Mandel said all officials were mindful that poor water quality is not only detrimental to our ecology but to our economy and tourism industry.
"I think they are aware of the environmental side of it and the economic side of it as well," he said.
"It's a matter of some assurances for us so that we don't get too much or too little (regulatory flows). Whatever we get, we hoping it is better quality."
SFWMD and the Army Corps of Engineers are known for owning a 50/50 partnership in managing the decisions for the Greater Everglades system, which includes Lake O and many of its estuaries.
Mandel said Vinyard opened the meeting with an "interesting approach" by making a baseball reference in basically asking what could be done at a lower, yet more efficient level to somewhat resolve some of the issues. Acquiring as much property as possible to increase water storage is a safe bet.
"He said, 'what can we do to get some singles to resolve the problems we are having'," Mandel said. "It really made a lot of sense, because there is no appropriation for the 'home runs' yet for it (in Washington D.C.)."
Mandel called for 'adaptive flexibility' in water level management, beginning with the Kissimmee River, which discharges in Lake O, and maximized storage on all private lands currently under contract by SFWMD.
"We talked about Babcock Ranch, Bassinger Grove flood plain storage and other C-43 (Caloosahatchee River West Basin Storage) reservoir areas," he said. "We agreed that municipalities should have their councils write a letter to Sen. (Bill) Nelson to request relief under Appendix A to use C-43 land for temporary storage. We also revisited Lake Okeechobee release schedules."
Regulation of nutrients in the upper Caloosahatchee River was also discussed.
Mandel and the other representatives of the municipalities stressed the economic significance of tourism. Numbers such as $3 billion collected from tourism in Lee County alone as well as 85,000 jobs associated with tourism and 22 percent of foreign money ($600 million) collected in the county were thrown around.
Vinyard told Mandel that all the stake holders are needed to be brought into the full discussion, so that all agencies and municipalities can partner together. Overall, the meeting was said to go well.
"Sure, we still have to go back to Washington D.C. to lobby for appropriation as part of the long-term solution," said Mandel. "But, there are little things that can be 'hits.' While they cost money, they are within our control. South Florida Water Management District and DEP will work towards trying to implement these things."
Since the problem is cited as water management, due to not enough storage space during the rainy season, Mandel has kept atop of the issue by meeting with county, state and federal officials.
Long-term projects that are still being looked into include acquiring more land for the C-43 reservoir (designed to hold 170,000 acre feet of water), Central Everglades Planning Project (reconnect Lake O south with Everglades National Park, but water needs to be treated/cleaned) and the restoration of Herbert Hoover Dike (to enhance structural integrity and provide additional storage).
Vinyard has been involved in prior critical water quality cleanup plans, like the Basin Management Action Plans in Southwest Florida that involved Hendry Creek, Imperial River and the Caloosahatchee River.
"One of DEP's top priorities is getting Florida's water right, ensuring an adequate supply and improving water quality," he said back in late 2012. "The Department is focused on achieving measurable ecological progress through restoration programs all across the state. We will continue to partner with local stakeholders as we take collective, immediate action to restore the rivers, lakes and estuaries that give Florida so much of its unique character."
For now, with another expected rain-heavy summer upon us, environmentalists are hoping harmful algae blooms and outbreaks of red tide that have been linked to nutrient-rich water flows do not become a reoccurring problem.
"Back-pumping" ruled a violation
Recently, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas in New York's Southern District ruled that the flood-control practice referred to as "back-pumping" is a violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act.
Back-pumping has been called a practice of taking water from bodies of water, such as Lake Okeechobee, using it on farm lands and then discharging the nutrient-laden water back into the lake.
South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith recently stated that day-to-day operations won't immediately change while the district considers filing an appeal to the ruling.