Water quality issues continued to dominate discussions at Sanibel City Council sessions Tuesday as Mayor Kevin Ruane and Natural Resources director James Evans updated the members and public on the current status of the Lake Okeechobee water releases.
"As of Monday, the lake was at 15.5 feet, which is up slightly due to recent rain," said Evans. "We were at 15.0 feet this time last year. Water flowing into the Caloosahatchee River has been reduced as well, so there is more going into the lake than coming out."
Evans also informed council that water flow from the overall basin entering the Caloosahatchee and making its way to Sanibel is three times what is being released from Lake O, but it could take six times.
That early morning dip in the pool or a workout at Sanibel Recreation Center will cost resident members, guests and visitors just a little bit more with City Council's approval of a resolution Tuesday to raise rates on Oct. 1 for the first time in five years.
"There has been talk to keep the lake lower, but if you keep it too low you lose the water quality benefit for the entire system," said Evans. "Things are changing rapidly."
Ruane, who has met with or spoken to almost every state lawmaker and government official, water managers, engineers and scientists willing to listen in recent weeks, is amazed by what has transpired with this issue, for very little money, since the beginning of August.
"We started this on Aug. 6," said Ruane. "We are just 41 days into the process. We just have to keep moving the ball up the field to some degree and get the ball into the end zone."
Ruane recently attended the Florida Leaders Summit in Orlando, an invitation only event. The event brought together 300 state leaders, including Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater as well as state legislators and others. Ruane said the benefits to Sanibel were another opportunity to talk directly with Gov. Scott about the impact of the fresh water releases and to see the water issue placed on the state's priority list.
The fight continues next week when the Senate Select Committee meets in Tallahassee, which Ruane will attend to carry on the water quality cause through budget appropriations. The following week, he will be in Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Congress considers the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that passed in the Senate in May. The WRDA, which has not been addressed in six years, would accelerate project delivery, address port maintenance and establish a financing program for loans for flood control, water supply and wastewater projects.
"I reached out the Cauncey Goss and Porter Goss, who knows how to navigate Congress more than most," said Ruane. "He has provided a list of who to talk to. We have a concise game plan and have worked on our message, so it doesn't matter who we talk to. It's the same message. And sometimes you can be more effective with someone in just five minutes time."
Council also received the annual fertilizer and lake management report card presentation on the city's three golf courses. Each is evaluated on implementing the city's Best Management Practices (BMP) in education, fertilizer and lake management and irrigation.
The Sanctuary Golf Club received 64 out of a possible 65 points to score at 98 percent, which is a 7 percent improvement since the reports began in 2011. The Dunes Golf & Tennis Resort earned 60.5 points to score at 93 percent, a jump of 30 percent since 2011. Both courses are considered in "full compliance" with the BMP.
Sanibel Island Golf Club earned 35 points to score at 54 percent, a modest 3 percent decrease over two years. The former Beachview Golf Club is under new ownership and its BMP is now being formed by two gentlemen who previously implemented the plan at The Sanctuary. Though "not in compliance," staff is comfortable that the new management team is on the right track to complying.
Council also passed a resolution raising fees at Sanibel Recreation Center for the first time if five years. The increase amounts to about $2.88 a week for individuals with an annual package that gives members access to everything the center has to offer.
Recreation director Andrea Miller said the increased fees will help them add more classes and programs for all residents. Besides the equipment and facilities, there are more than 40 fitness classes offered each week.
While making her recommendation to council, Miller compared the fees with similar facilities in Lee and Collier counties where the annual membership could be lower than Sanibel's proposal of $150, but also add fees for classes and access. Sanibel members also can take advantage of complimentary health screenings and discounted tickets to shows and sporting events.
The new rated go into effect on Oct. 1, but members won't see it until the one-year anniversary of their membership purchase date.
Speaking of fees, in conjunction with passing the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, council has lowered Planning Department fees by 25 percent. Though approving the decrease, council directed staff to provide more detailed tracking of staff's work in a spreadsheet style, possibly, to more easily compare specific areas. Council also asked to see the original document establishing the fee structure as well as a comparison to fees in force in comparable "sister" cities.
Council also reviewed its established list of three goals - water quality, redevelopment and financial stability.
Financial stability is being addressed through debt reduction and determining adequate reserves. Redevelopment is an ongoing project that council hopes to have completed around the end of the year.
Water quantity was added to the water quality goal while also laying out a plan from the local, regional and state/federal perspectives. It was suggested that a "white paper" be produced detailing the current water quality process for the benefit of future councils and officials.