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Health of water surrounding local beaches is paramount

By Staff | Dec 2, 2015

It is not difficult to argue that the beaches of Lee County are one of our most valuable assets. Tourism in Lee County generates almost $3 billion annually. The health of the water surrounding our beaches is paramount to protecting our quality of life, a vibrant tourism-based economy, and a healthy and diverse estuary. The damaging freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee in 200507 and again in 2013 remind us how dependent our communities are on clean water.

In 2013, the five Mayors of Lee County joined forces to advocate for policies and projects to address freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee watershed. We sent numerous letters to Gov. Scott, our Florida legislators, the South Florida Water Management District, the Army Corps and our federal representatives. These letters included a request to reevaluate the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to provide short-term relief from damaging releases, reassessment of the Adaptive Protocols for Lake Okeechobee so the Caloosahatchee receives enough freshwater during the dry season, and resolutions in support of water storage projects including the C-43 Reservoir and the purchase of lands south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

When lobbying for projects to address our water quality and quantity problems in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., it became apparent that many of advocates on the west coast of Florida were not advocating for the same solutions. In fact, many were advocating for different projects and often criticizing projects that were moving forward to help improve the situation. This left our legislators confused. Instead of funding the critical projects that we need to address our problems, often the money was spent on projects benefitting the east coast. At that point, it was clear to me that what we needed was a comprehensive strategy to address our water quality issues and get all west coast stakeholders on the same page.

In 2014, the Mayors of Lee County and the Lee Commission joined forces to develop a comprehensive strategy to address freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee. Together, we drafted the Caloosahatchee Watershed Regional Water Management Issues White Paper. This document provides a list of short- and long-term solutions for water storage and treatment within the Kissimmee, Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee watersheds. The goal of this comprehensive plan is to align all of our local stakeholders so we can advocate with one voice to improve the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of freshwater water reaching our coast. The document can be found at: www.mysanibel.com/content/download/21060/125864.

A few local environmental advocates have recently criticized the Mayors of Lee County for supporting construction of the C-43 Reservoir. They argue that without a water quality treatment component the project is “worthless.” Their solution is “Plan 6 is the fix.” What they don’t tell you is that the two projects are aimed at very different problems. The primary goal of the C-43 Reservoir is to store water within the Caloosahatchee watershed to provide dry-season flows-helping to balance salinity within the estuary, while the Plan 6 concept is aimed at addressing wet-season high-flow discharges. Furthermore, the C-43 Reservoir project has actually been designed and engineered and an accurate cost/benefit analysis has been completed for the project; Plan 6 is still very much conceptual.

We agree that a water quality treatment component for the C-43 Reservoir would enhance the benefits of the project and continue to advocate for a treatment component (see White Paper for details). What some advocates leave out of their argument is that in order to provide the dry-season flows necessary to balance salinity within the estuary and prevent harmful algal blooms associated with stagnation in the river, water from the C-43 Reservoir is a critical part of the solution.

It is estimated that we need 450,000 acre-feet of water storage (146 billion gallons) within the Caloosahatchee watershed to provide dry-season flows to the estuary. The C-43 Reservoir is estimated to store 170,000 acre-feet (55 billion gallons), which equates to 38 percent of the total volume needed. This is not an insignificant amount of water storage!

The critics of this project do not use facts, they use talking points aimed at getting media attention rather than working towards solutions based on sound science and engineering. The fact is the C-43 Reservoir already enjoys wide-spread support among most stakeholders and the planning and engineering is complete. It is also the only project aimed at addressing water storage within the watershed authorized by Congress under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

I challenge any advocate to come to the table and propose an alternative approach that addresses both the high- and low-flow challenges in the Caloosahatchee. I urge you to read the Caloosahatchee White Paper and welcome any viable science-based solutions not addressed in the document.

Kevin Ruane is the mayor of the City of Sanibel.