South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has two important meetings coming up in August to consider a proposal to backpump water laced with phosphorous and nitrogen from the Everglades into Lake Okeechobee.
The district is considering the proposal as a possible solution for water releases into the Caloosahatchee River. It has drawn the attention of a number of water quality organizations, including the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, which object to the proposal and are marshaling support from government officials and the public ahead of the SFWMD workshop meeting on Aug. 2 and governing board meeting on Aug. 9.
"We want the public to write, fax or call SFWMD members to voice their concerns or attend one or both of the meetings," said Rae Ann Wessel, Natural Resource Policy director at SCCF. "The concern is all about water quality."
Backpumping was outlawed in 2007 by the governing board after a massive push and several lawsuits against it.
"That was backpumping where the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) folks when they have too much water just pump it back into the lake where it would stay until they needed it," said Wessel. "Then they would pump it for their irrigation demand. Part of the problem was they were really using the lake like a reservoir, even though they would be able to set one up on their own properties."
SFWMD staff spent eight months of looking for solutions to the lack of water flow for the Caloosahatchee to come up with this newest proposal. The proposal sets a "limited amount of backpumping" significantly less than that which was overturned in 2007.
"This is a subset of that," said Wessel. "It's a mini variation of that. They think they can add water to the lake and give that water to the Caloosahatchee. It's their preferred alternative in doing their evaluation even though we have found an alternative that does not require backpumping and really use the no-cost alternative."
The backpumping proposal undermines all of the water quality work the state of Florida just promised a federal judge by spending $880 million in cleaning up Everglades water quality.
"We're having to do that for the very reasons that sources of pollution have been allowed to discharge into public water bodies where they have festered and created this water quality problem," said Wessel.
"This same district is now proposing to backpump water into Lake Okeechobee in this mini variation of the previous proposal that is going to deliver 10 metric tons of phosphorous and 359 metric tons of nitrogen into the lake," Wessel adds. "In a limited nitrogen system like the lake, it causes toxic algae blooms that leads to deterioration of the water quality. You add 359 metric tons a year and you're going to have an ecological upheaval on your hands."
Wessel asked the Sanibel City Council for its support to stop the proposal at the council's monthly meeting last week.
"There has been a lot of effort to clean up Lake Okeechobee, tremendous focus on reducing nitrogen and phosphorous levels in this polluted body of water," said Sanibel vice mayor Mick Denham. "It is very difficult for me to fathom how the SFWMD would support backpumping into the lake. This would increase the levels of pollution and undo all the good work that has been done over the past few years. The quality of water in Lake Okeechobee benefits both the citizens of Moore Haven and the citizens of Sanibel."
Mayor Kevin Ruane was one of several island officials and business owners who lobbied SFWMD to release water into the Caloosahatchee during the dry spring.
"We know that we need to find interim solutions to provide dry-season freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee while we wait for the C-43 reservoir to be constructed, but we want to be sure that any interim solution that we support does not further impact the water quality in Lake Okeechobee or Everglades restoration," said Ruane. "All issues impacting water quality remain at the top of our priorities."
"Our focus is on the Caloosahatchee because it has been like a stepchild, the one that's always been forgotten or cut off or whatever the consequence was," said Wessel. "The Caloosahatchee was being cut off when all other interests were not restricted. We got cut off this past spring for a month and a half when there were no other restrictions. Not only were there no restrictions, there was no threat of a water shortage."