Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition coordinator Ray Judah provided the Fort Myers Beach Town Council with a power-point presentation on the current state of water quality in Southwest Florida at a recent workshop at Town Hall. In so, he provided recommendations to managing the Lake Okeechobee watershed.
With rainy season about to begin soon, Judah gave a scientific point of view about the environmental impact suffered when high flow regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and consequently along Southwest Florida beachfronts and saltwater estuaries.
Judah spoke about water discharges from Lake O watershed with the inclusion of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, nitrogen and phosphorous to our water ways. Discharges have led to massive amounts of red drift algae and red tide conditions that have been responsible for fish kills and manatee deaths, 300 reported on the latter during last season alone.
This photo was taken at Bunche Beach, neighboring beachfront to Fort Myers Beach, on March 13, 2014. The ugly, red drift algae is attributed to high flow regulatory freshwater releases discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River during last rain season.
"Red tide takes advantage of the land-base nutrients from the sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee and farms north of the lake that are back-pumped into the lake. Those nutrients in the form of nitrogen and phosphorous feed the red tide blooms that we experience," he said.
The noted environmental champion stated all the proposed short-term and long-term solutions will not adequately address the excessive runoff for Lake O.
"The Audubon Society of Florida determined through a complete analysis of water quality of the Lake Okeechobee watershed that about 4.7 million acre feet of water (an acre of water stacked a foot high) gets into Lake Okeechobee, but 2.5 million acre feet evaporates," said Judah. "That leaves 2.2 million acre feet in that lake, and 44 percent goes down the Caloosahatchee."
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation did a flow analysis down the Caloosahatchee River. Judah crunched some numbers related to that study.
"Over a four month period of time, that rate of flow was 7,400 cubic feet, which is about 4.75 billion gallons a day, or the maximum amount was 9,300 cubic feet (roughly 6 billion gallons a day)," he said. "Keep in mind that the C-43 reservoir will fill up in a matter of less than two weeks. That is why it will not solve the problem in addressing massive releases from Lake Okeechobee."
The former Lee County Commissioner gave other reasons why other single plans would not sufficiently work regarding excessive runoffs.
"The South Florida Water Management District manages the lake as a reservoir for agricultural runoff," he said. "They manage the EAA at 18 to 24 inches of water below ground for optimum growth for sugar cane no mater what the time of year or seasonal fluctuations. That is why you are getting water back-pumped into the lake."
Judah mentioned the recent Federal judicial determination of back-pumping is in violation of the clean water act, but it had to stop.
"I am relying on that court ruling," he said, "but EPA may challenge it."
Judah then provided what he believes is the only solution to alleviate the massive releases from Lake O.
"We need to recreate some semblance of the flow way that used to exist between the lake and publicly owned lands down at Everglades National Park.," he said. "What is needed is 50,000 acres -20,000 acres owned by U.S. Sugar and 30,000 acres owned by Florida Crystal- to create a flow way. Once that land is purchased, it combines with over 100,000 acres that could be used for storage, treatment and conveyance to alleviate the release of that water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie (rivers)."
Funds to pay for the required land could come from a state bond allocation process, BP oil spill money, restructuring SFWMD and a joint participation from the Department of Interior, says Judah. Eminent domain could also factor in.
"I hope it wouldn't have to come to that. Hard negotiations could take place with the sugar industry," he said.
Political connections appear to be in the way.
"It's sad that it is the economy," said Judah. "It's balancing the $4.5 billion impact for sugar in the state of Florida versus a $70 billion impact for tourism in the state of Florida. You wonder how they are making that decision to hurt the environment and support the sugar industry."
All in all, it boils down to one way to deal with the problem.
"There is only one solution - more storage," said Judah.
--The following are Judah's recommendations to effectively manage the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and reduce adverse impacts to the Caloosahatchee and coastal estuaries:
1) Collaborate with Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and Legislative Delegation to support legislation to implement the 1996 Polluter Pays Constitutional Amendment.
2) Coordinate with Florida DEP to support Basin Management Action Plan for Lake Okeechobee to include Nitrogen.
3) Coordinate with Congressional and Legislative delegation to support acquisition of 50,000 acres (20,000 U.S. Sugar and 30,000 Florida Crystals) of land between the North New River and Miami canals and south of Lake Okeechobee for storage, treatment and conveyance of water to the Everglades.
4) Request that the SFWMD use the 35,000-acre Holey Lands for storage and treatment of water from Lake Okeechobee during times of emergency release of water from Lake Okeechobee in the wet season.
5) Joint Resolution with Lee County and cities requesting water reservation for the Caloosahatchee to comply with minimum flows and levels. Further request that any new agricultural water consumptive use permit applications for water withdrawal from Lake Okeechobee be placed in abeyance until completion of water reservation rule making.
6) Coordinate with the SFWMD and Legislative Delegation to support sufficient funding for restoration of Lake Hicpochee.
7) Coordinate with the SFWMD and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request storm water treatment area or water quality component for C-43 Reservoir.
8) Support modification to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule that provides equitable water conservation practices for agriculture, utilities and environmental release.
9) Request that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expedite their risk assessment study for a spillway on the south side of Lake Okeechobee to alleviate pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike thereby reducing reliance on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers as the relief valves during wet years for massive release of polluted water discharge to the estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida.
10) Collaborate with Lee County, SFWMD and the Everglades Foundation using Algenol technology to support funding for a nutrient (Nitrogen and Phosphorous) removal project on the Caloosahatchee or Lake Okeechobee.
Gov. Scott urges Corps to approve CEPP
Last Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Review Board to immediately reconvene and adopt the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). This proposed action follows the Corps' refusal to approve the plan at Wednesday's meeting in Washington, D.C.
Prior to the vote, the Governor sent the U.S. Army Corps a letter urging the Board to adopt CEPP.
"We are extremely disappointed that Corps officials in Washington refused to approve CEPP at yesterday's meeting. Day-by-day the rainy season approaches, and that's why we are asking the Board to immediately reconvene to discuss and approve CEPP," said Scott. "Just this month, the South Florida Water Management District took historic action in approving CEPP, and yesterday the federal government added more bureaucratic hurdles in our efforts to restore water quality, and send the water south.
"We've worked closely with our federal and local partners, and we need officials in Washington to act with more urgency in adopting these projects. The federal government must make CEPP a priority. We must do everything it takes to protect the natural treasures that Florida families rely on."