Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) officials got the message loud and clear Tuesday night: Leave the rivers alone.
About 80 people showed up at SWFWMD-sponsored workshop in Lecanto to urge the district not to increase withdrawals from the Chassahowitzka and Homosassa rivers. Specifically, the district is recommending allowing up to an 8% flow reduction for the Chassahowitzka and a 5% reduction for Homosassa.
The public was even more upset because those levels have been set at 3% since 2013.
Why tamper with them again, asked several people gathered at the workshop at the College of Central Florida.
Minimum flows and levels (MFLs) are defined by state statute as "the limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area." Water districts use them in water-supply planning and in determining water-use permitting and environmental resource regulation.
The district is required by the state to re-evaluate minimum flows after six years. The most recent recommendations are part of that re-evaluation.
People weren’t buying it.
“(That) explanation doesn’t satisfy me,” said Iris Hollis of Crystal River.
David Blatt doesn’t know why water authorities want to keep messing with artificial means of controlling a river’s flows.
“We need to stop draining water and start saving water,” said Blatt, a Chassahowitzka River resident.
Cheryl Turman was more blunt.
“It’s bull hockey," said Turman, who’s lived on the Chassahowitzka River for 26 years. “The whole thing of this is to steal our water and send it down south. They’re not fooling anybody.”
The audience listened respectfully to SWFWMD Senior Environmental Scientist Gabe Herrick’s 30-minute presentation ahead of an audience question-and-answer period explaining how the district arrived at its recommendations.
Herrick said river flows are determined using scientific data and are independently peer-reviewed. The MFLs determine how much water can be withdrawn from a water body before significant harm is done to ecosystems, he said.
But the public wasn’t buying it.
“If all that is true, then why is everyone (upset)?” asked Rodney MacRae, a lifelong Homosassa River resident.
County Commission Chairman Jeff Kinnard also disagrees with the “it’s all about science” argument.
“It’s all about cheap water for the area — for the Withlacoochee regional area,” Kinnard said. “That’s what it’s about.”
The district is recommending allowing an up to 8% flow reduction in the Chassahowitzka river system and a 5% reduction for the Homosassa river system — lower for Chassahowitzka and higher for Homosassa than was recommended during a contentious round of evaluations in 2013, after which the governing board set the rates for both at 3%.
Initial staff recommendations that year called for allowable flow reductions 9% for Chassahowitzka and 3% for Homosassa.
The water district held Tuesday’s workshop to solicit public reaction before its staff recommendations are presented to the SWFWMD governing board in October.
Sky Notestein, SWFWMD springs and environmental flows manager, explained that the recommendations are science-based and ultimately protect the rivers.
“It’s not a way to take new water,” Notestein said. “It’s a way to help us plan for future and current water use. We want to specifically limit the impacts of the Chassahowitzka and Homosassa rivers from human water withdrawals.
“We use the best available data, the best available models, that allow us to predict conditions where we don’t have direct measures,” Notestein said. “This is a balancing act that we are required to do.”
Kinnard, though, said the new recommendations negatively affect Citrus County.
“It’s not forcing elected officials in our Withlacoochee region water supply area to make tough decisions,” Kinnard said. “Right now, they believe they have groundwater to last them for decades. When you take steps like this by increasing the minimum flows, to 5 and 8%, you’re increasing the availability of groundwater to them so they’re going to continue pulling that cheap water out of the ground until it reaches a critical point at some point down the road.”
When it reaches that critical point, those elected officials will have to make some tough decisions about using surface water, which is more expensive, he said.
“They won’t see it over in their communities. What we will be left with is minimum flow rivers over here in Citrus County," Kinnard said. “So it’s going to impact what we have in our community. It’s going to impact everybody’s cost of water at that time.
“What should be happening right now is we should be capping out the availability of groundwater or reducing the availability of groundwater and forcing (all) the elected officials involved in the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority to make tough decisions on where the next water supply is going to come from.”
Brad Rimbey, who sits on the Homosassa River Alliance and Withlacoochee Aquatic Restoration boards, said he is not optimistic that the current water district board will heed the concerns of the public. Board members, he said, are more concerned about serving real estate and agricultural interests.
The evidence, he said, is clear from the recommended withdrawal increases and previous actions involving Crystal River, King’s Bay and the Rainbow River.
“I’m pretty pessimistic about the future of our coastal rivers,” said Rimbey, also vice president of the Florida Springs Council.
The water district will take written and oral comments from Tuesday’s workshop and present them before the SWFWMD governing board for their consideration ahead of this fall’s meeting.
“They become part of the record (and) we will share their concerns,” Notestein said.
Didn’t make it to Tuesday’s workshop? You can still submit comments by mail. Send to: Southwest Florida Water Management District, attn: Environmental Scientist Dr. Gabe Herrick, 2379 Broad St., Brooksville, Florida 34609-6899.
You can also send emails to Gabe.Herrick@WaterMatters.org.