November 11, 2016
State: federal species protections adding to water woes
State water managers say the
federal government and
Heavy rains this year caused the U.S. Army Corps to release more than 500 billion gallons of water to the Caloosahatchee and its estuary, and the coast has been brown, if not black. Algal blooms have closed local swimming beaches, and Realtors say the poor water quality is having an impact on the housing industry.
The Army Corps manages lake levels, but the South Florida Water Management District is responsible for dealing with water flowing from the lake to the south.
Much of the infrastructure needed to send more water south is in place; but the state can't send water to the national park, and eventually, Florida Bay until there is some remedy to or relief from the Endangered Species Act — which basically says the state can't discharge water to the park between February and August because it could detrimentally impact the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.
"It’s a boondoggle until we get what we have to have, and that’s dynamic flow, unrestricted, during rain events from the Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay," said Newton Cook, a member of the district's Water Resources Advisory Commission, during a district meeting Thursday. "We know what the two restrictions are and until those two restrictions are resolved the estuaries will be bombed. And the those people (living in coastal areas) need to know that."
Historically the lake flowed most of the year, delivering water from as far north as Orlando to Florida Bay. But that natural process was stopped about a century ago when the Everglades was ditched and drained for development.
For decades the goal has been to reconnect some of those lost flows to help hydrate the national park, where alligators have died in recent years from a lack of water.
During that time, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow moved from its original home — Cape Sable — to more interior areas of the park, areas it didn't occupy historically.
But the bird is there now, and sending more water to the park during high rain events would violate federal law because it would likely wipe out what's left of the sparrow's breeding population, which nests about 6 inches off the ground.
"Here we have high water stages in our water conservation areas, where we’re losing our ridge and slough environment, which has consequences on these other species — all to avoid one species that our federal partners shackle us (with)," said water board member Melanie Peterson."It’s so frustrating to see the devastation of hundreds of other species, whether they’re aquatic species, aquatic plants, fish, other animals, and wading birds, as a consequence of our federal partner’s shortsightedness. This single-species management cannot go on."
Moving water from Lake Okeechobee to the national park requires a network of water treatment and conveyance features. If any of those features gets backed up, it's impossible to send more water because the system is already at capacity.
"The major problem there is single species management in connection with the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, which prohibits us from moving water south," said governing board member James Moran. "Until that problem is resolved, our goals down there are much more difficult to achieve. And we’re operating with our hands tied behind our backs."
Soon, though, conditions will reverse, and the Caloosahatchee River and its estuary will need Lake Okeechobee water releases in order to survive.
Lands that once drained into the river have been developed, and the water is moved off the landscape as fast as possible. To make up for that loss, Okeechobee water is sent to the river to keep salinity levels better balanced.
"As we get further along into the dry season we’ll see that shift where the Caloosahatchee (was getting too much) water and as we get into the dry season we enter that time when the Caloosahatchee needs water — discharges from Lake Okeechobee to maintain salinity levels throughout the estuary," said Terrie Bates, the district's water resources director.
In other water news, The district also approved through its consent agenda a water quality project for the Caloosahatchee reservoir, often called C43. Some outside water quality scientists have said the reservoir needs a system to remove pollution if it's going to be effective.
Board member Mitch Hutchcraft commented on the recent Save Our Waters summit held by The News-Press, at which he represented the district.
"I had the opportunity to participate in a water quality symposium that was convened by The News-Press this last month," he said. "I was thankful for the opportunity, for everybody from all different perspectives on the issues to come together and hear presentations. For the Caloosahatchee basin, it reaffirmed the importance of continuing to look at moving the (Caloosashatchee reservoir) forward, and we need to do that as soon as possible."