Tallahassee — Lee County is bitterly protesting a proposed cutoff of the water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary, citing loss of drinking water supplies, a rise in salinity and harm to its tourist industry, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The fight pits agricultural users against wildlife and urban demand, as South Florida’s water supplies and quality situation continue to deteriorate.
At its March 12, 2009 meeting the Governing Board for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) recommended ending any further releases from Lake Okeechobee for the rest of the dry season through June. This recommendation to cease the “beneficial base flow discharges” of approximately 650 cubic feet per second to the Caloosahatchee requires concurrence from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In March 17, 2009 letters directed to the SFWMD and the Corps, Ray Judah, Chair of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, complains that the state water agency acted with scant public notice, using “deficient information” and relying upon “the absolute worst case scenario” about future lake levels. Judah says that the cutoff will reduce water supplies and deliver harmful effects to the ecology and economy of Southwest Florida, including:
- Potential loss of the county’s ability to “withdraw and supply water from the Caloosahatchee River at the Olga Treatment Plant”;
- “[S]ignificant increases in salinities and a heightened risk of algal blooms” in the Caloosahatchee system; and
- Economic damage from “a direct and significant impact” on the region’s tourism industry.
The conflict raises questions about the state and federal governments’ ability to naturally store waters while protecting water quality – an increasingly severe problem in drought-stricken South Florida.
“On one hand, we are starving the Caloosahatchee, but because of last week’s rain on the east coast, they opened the gates to make flood control releases,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, an attorney who formerly worked in the state Department of Environmental Protection water program. “In South Florida, they are now reduced to fighting over water scraps.”
More fundamentally, however, the Corps, SFWMD and Lee County continue to permit developments and drainage canals that alter the region’s natural hydrology and degrade aquatic resources.
“There is no reserve left for lean times because the system is managed to accommodate agriculture while fueling unfettered urban sprawl. Public agencies have not demonstrated they are capable of effectively managing the system, much less ‘restoring’ it,” Phillips added. “Even though this region is on the verge of an ecological meltdown, consumptive use permits continue to be issued for water-intensive uses like golf courses.”