Aug. 17, 2017
Caloosahatchee River, Estuary Relief May Have to Wait Until 2022
By Chad Gillis
The Caloosahatchee River is starved of freshwater at times, and itís going to be another five years before the state can meet water quantity standards that were first adopted 16 years ago. Scientists charged with formulating and approving a plan to help the ailing river met with the public in Fort Myers on Thursday to talk about freshwater flow levels for the Caloosahatchee and its estuary.
During the summer there is often too much freshwater flowing down the river, but during dry seasons ó like this past one ó the river can become too salty. The result is death of sea grasses and the base of the marine food chain.
Keeping that brackish balance is the reason the river needs a reservation, basically a law that would say no more water use permits can be issued once a certain amount of water has been allocated. Save some water for the river, the thinking goes.
"Itís the point at which further withdrawals will cause significant harm to water resources or the ecology of an area," said Don Medellin, a coastal and marine scientist for the South Florida Water Management District. "It really focuses on surface and groundwater withdrawals." A minimal flow level was set in 2001, but there was no time frame as to when those minimums would be established and maintained.
The answer to getting enough water for the river and its estuary, water managers say, is the Caloosahatchee Reservoir, also called C-43. This compound in Hendry County will hold about 55 billion gallons and will, by design, feed the Caloosahatchee during drought conditions.
At a cost of about $600 million, the reservoir will be completed in 2022 and is expected to help the state meet the minimum flow rules. "All the new water thatís being provided with this project is solely for environmental purposes, so itís solely to help the fish and wildlife in the Caloosahatchee estuary," Medellin said. "It reserves all the water in the reservoir so nobody can put a straw in there and draw water. Itís all going to be protected."
Some members of the public expressed frustration over the time-frame for fixing this particular problem. The river also has too much nitrogen, and the estuary sometimes gets blown miles into the Gulf of Mexico during times of extreme freshwater flow.
"Iíve been involved in this process for over 16 years and thereís been many occasions when the Caloosahatchee River has not been able to receive the 300 cubic feet per second (the minimum set in 2001), which is the minimum flow level currently," said Noel Andress, chair of Lee County's Local Planning Agency." Iím just kind of curious as to why we want to establish a new reasonable level for the estuary when you canít even provide the estuary currently the water thatís called for by law."† Medellin said meeting those minimum flows will have to wait.
"There was a lot of initiative on this coast and a lot of concern about the estuary and the health of the estuary and so thatís part of the reason the governing board provided that direction to move forward with additional science and additional information so we could make the best informed decision down the road," he said. "Thatís part of the reason weíre going through this effort and process."
Others said the water management district should consider water quality as well as the sheer quantity needed to avoid drought-like conditions. David Ceilley, with Johnson Engineering, said the reservoir needs water treatment systems to help clean the water and ensure that it can be legally discharged back into the Caloosahatchee River.
"I think itís important to recognize that the C-44 (the west coast equivalent to the Caloosahatchee Reservoir) has two filter marshes and the C-43 currently does not have treatment. Itís just a bath tub," Ceilley said. Ceilley said he and others fear waters in the reservoir will be plagued by blue-green algae, which could make it illegal to release the water back into the river.
Andress said he thinks the data used in the program is old and does not reflect modern Lee County. "Thereís been more (water use permits) issued in this South Florida Water Management District than there is water available, so itís over-allocated," Andress said. "... The estuary is at the bottom of the totem pole."