After recent bad news, last Friday there was some good news from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), which announced a seven-day pulse release to the Caloosahatchee starting on Jan. 28.
The rainfall in the Caloosahatchee basin in the past week has meant that some water has been coming through at the Franklin Lock since Jan. 26; there have been no releases from Lake Okeechobee (measured at Moore Haven Lock) since Dec. 30.
By initiating the pulse release schedule, the Corps has committed to releasing some water from the lake to provide flow for the health of the estuary.
Concerns about the level of Lake Okeechobee prompted the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board, as recently as Jan. 13, to recommend that the Corps cut off needed freshwater flows to the Caloosahatchee.
As we enter what is predicted to be a prolonged period of drought, this will be an ongoing battle. Up until this announcement by the Corps, the only water restriction issued was a complete cut-off of water for the Caloosahatchee river and estuary. No other water shortage orders — let alone cut backs — were ordered for any other users, not even for noncritical uses such as residential lawn watering.
Last year the SFWMD issued 20-year permits for 2.18 million acre feet of water, which protects that volume of water solely for permitted users. The environment has no such protection.
In 2001, the SFWMD adopted a rule to set a minimum flow and level (MFL) for the estuary to protect the estuary from high salinities and the upper river from stagnation and algal blooms. However in five of the past nine years since the rule was adopted, the river has not received enough water to meet the minimum level of flow. Public resources like the estuary have no protected water supply and no leverage to assure that public water is used for public resources.
There is a solution to dry season releases — a reservation of water — which we have been working to achieve for the past 10 years. In the meantime, no permitted users have had to wait to get their permits and allocation protected.
One big question is how Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, and cabinet will view Everglades restoration and address water policy. One of the first actions of the new Governor was to issue Executive Order Number 11-01 that requires all new rulemaking be approved by a new Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform. This will affect efforts to get a Reservation of water and an updated MFL to provide minimum flows to the Caloosahatchee and estuary.
Month after month the Caloosahatchee gets unilaterally cut off from water in the dry season — and then, when there is too much water — dumped on in the wet season. The real concern here is that providing low flows during the dry season is a management/policy decision that requires no funding, construction or other authorizations.
The equity (or inequity) of sharing resources between all users is the only thing at stake. In contrast, addressing high flows requires construction of infrastructure to capture, store and treat excess water and that requires Congressional authorizations, funding and significant capital to achieve and years to build.