Dec 2, 2014
Over $480M needed for major SWFL water quality projects
By Chad Gillis
Several hundred million dollars and a few decades of hydrological work will clean up the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary, in theory at least.
Dozens of water quality scientists, elected officials and environmental groups are now figuring out just which projects should be pushed in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., in the coming legislative sessions. The South Florida Water Management District and other officials met to discuss the options at a Caloosahatchee River forum Tuesday.
“There are a ton of great projects,” said Lee County commissioner Brian Hamman. “They all have merit, but having them ranked is extremely important to decision-makers.”
The group includes the South Florida Water Management District, Lee County, the United States Geological Survey, municipalities within Lee and concerned citizens. The idea is to galvanize various interests to help ensure the federal government will address some of the water quality problems.
On their wish list:
•Secure funding for the Caloosahatchee Reservoir
•Restore the north part of Lake Hicpochee
•Test the reservoir and various ways of reducing nitrogen loads
•Reduce stormwater flowing into the river from lands that historically drained into Charlotte Harbor
Those are the immediate, short-term needs — projects that are designed and ready to be constructed. The remaining cost for those four projects is $480 million, with more than $450 million going to the reservoir.
The reservoir is designed to improve salinity balances in the river system and will have a capacity of 170,000 acre-feet, or 55 billion gallons.
Historically, Southwest Florida’s ecology balanced water needs and demands. But water here has been directed by engineers and developers for more than a century. Those changes to the natural hydrology have already cost tax payers billions.
The challenge now is slowing the rate at which water flows to the coast. Holding water on the landscape and discharging it slowly will help mimic historic conditions.
“We have the opportunity of taking water from the lake (Okeechobee) and running it through Nicodemus Slough (preserve lands), down to Hicpochee and back into the (Caloosahatchee) river,” said Phil Flood with the WMD’s Fort Myers office.
Construction on the Hicpochee project is expected to begin in the summer of 2015, Flood said.
Some at the meeting said they’re concerned that water quality and Everglades restoration goals could rob some counties of the ability to develop, which keeps tax rolls low.
“When you talk about taking land for these projects, it ruins the local economy,” said Hugh English, a former WMD board member. “And a lot of the people here (Fort Myers and Cape Coral) are on septic tanks.”
English said people living within the Caloosahatchee watershed should remedy their own water quality problems before turning agriculture lands into storage cells.
Former Lee commissioner Ray Judah agreed with English, partially, at least.
“You are hurting counties like Hendry and Glades when you should be buying lands to the south to help restore the Everglades,” he said.