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WATER QUALITY: Chamber speaker offers issue viewpoint

October 16, 2013
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Even though the wet weather season has appeared to come to an end, do not expect our water quality issue to dry up.

The Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce hosted an civil engineering expert in water pollution control and water conservation among other things at its monthly luncheon at Charley's Boat House Grill on Thursday.

Roland Ottolini spoke about the managed system, the inner workings of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River, current water conditions and solutions as well as reactions to help the issue get resolved.

Ottolini provided testimony as a panelist on the recent Florida Senate Select Committee for the Lake Okeechobee Basin and Indian River Lagoon where he gave his insight about the effects of water quality in Southwest Florida. He has a degree in Civil Engineering and has served as a design engineer for several water resource projects. He also served in Lee County government to lead their stormwater management project

"I can't think of a community that is more affected by the water discharges down the river than Fort Myers Beach," he said.

The drainage area between the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee is roughly 1,400 square miles.

"In the wet season, that watershed expands. So, if your getting discharges from Lake Okeechobee (during that season) you're picking up the whole Kissimmee Basin all the way up to Orlando," Ottolini said. "So, you are adding 5,000 square miles to that water shed that ultimately could come our way."

Estuaries require a balance of fresh and salt water, depend on nutrients and support an abundance of sea life, says Ottolini.

"Our estuary out there is very important. It has national and state significance and is very important to our economy," he said. "Unfortunately, we do not have a natural system. It is subjected to a lot of extremes because it is a managed system."

Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the management of the system. Sending discharges south used to be the approach, but it's more difficult now.

"The historic route and desire is to send it south, but now we have what was hundreds of miles wide has now been shortened out to narrow canals. We also have a lot of agriculture and communities now," said Ottolini. "There is also a federal court order that says you can't send dirty water to the Everglades National Park. There are a lot of environmental considerations."

Solutions involve storing and conveying more water. Long-term projects are being looked into, such as Caloosahatchee River (C-43) West Basin Storage Reservoir (designed to hold 170,000 acre feet of water), Central Everglades Planning Project (reconnect Lake O south with Everglades National Park, but water needs to be treated/clean) and the restoration of Herbert Hoover Dike (to enhance structural integrity and provide additional storage).

"It's going to take a multitude of projects and efforts to really help us out," said Ottolini. "Dry weather is around the corner, the water will clear and it will return to some sort of normalcy. But, that is only short-lived. We need to continue your efforts for both long- and short-term projects. It will happen again and again as long as we have this system in place."

Florida Crystals agrees to swap land

As part of the Everglades Restoration Strategies plan -- the settlement between the state of Florida and the federal government that was approved by the Florida Legislature this year -- the South Florida Water Management District will need to expand STA-1W in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Florida Crystals was approached by the District and asked to exchange its land that is adjacent to STA-1W and in the footprint of the expansion. Florida Crystals is willing to exchange the land, which is located south of SR80, for land purchased from U.S. Sugar by the District, located east of Pahokee.

The District estimates that obtaining the land adjacent to STA-1W through land swaps with Florida Crystals and another EAA farmer will save the agency $32.7 million.

Moving Florida Crystals' farming operations from its current land to the land purchased by the District from U.S. Sugar is estimated to cost Florida Crystals $19 million for construction of infrastructure and land improvements.

Among the items that need to be addressed when moving to the new parcel:

1. Conversion from a railroad-hauling harvest system to a truck-hauling harvest system

- U.S. Sugar transports its harvested cane using a railroad system while Florida Crystals uses trucks to haul cane to its mills. New roads and bridges would need to be built, existing roads improved, and truck ramps would need to be installed

2. Establishment of independent drainage and irrigation infrastructure

- The property that Florida Crystals would receive is part of a larger area farmed by U.S. Sugar. Additional irrigation and drainage infrastructure, including a new pump station and various canal improvements, would need to be engineered and constructed for Florida Crystals to farm the land.

3. The farm is bisected by railroad tracks, which cannot be relocated and impede water movement and truck traffic on the farm

- A system would need to be engineered and constructed to allow water to cross the entire acreage.

- Railroad crossings would need to be engineered and constructed.

In addition to these one-time costs, farming the District land is less profitable than farming Florida Crystals' land. Florida Crystals' land has fertile muck soil, allowing the company to plant seed cane that yields three crops and to also grow rice, corn and vegetables. The District land, however, is mostly sandy soil and on a significant incline with several ridges that make farming more expensive and complicated, including requiring the expensive replanting of seed cane every two crops instead of three. In addition, the District land is unsuitable for alternative crops.

Another landowner in the STA1W expansion footprint was unwilling to swap its land for the District land because of the differences in quality of the land within the STA-1W expansion footprint compared to the District land. Florida Crystals has offered to solve this problem by offering to swap an additional parcel of good-quality muck land with this landowner, thereby allowing the District to obtain all of the land it needs for the STA-1W expansion.

The District is proposing to address Florida Crystals' $19 million loss through increased acreage rather than monetary payment. Florida Crystals is willing to exchange 4,820 acres of muck farms south of SR80 for 8,713 acres of sandy soils east of Pahokee. Even with the larger number of acres, Florida Crystals estimates the trade will still result in a loss for the company at the farming level.

SOURCE: Florida Crystals



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