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THE VALUE OF WATER

what you see is not what you get, anymore
BY ROGER WILLIAMS

HALL

FLORIDA PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTION A much cleaner Caloosahatchee River existed in this photo from a half a century ago.
STAND ON THE LEE-COLLIER COUNTY LINE, POINT your nose upward, and levitate to a height of 50,000 feet.
From there, you'll be able to see not only a region of about one million people spread across 2,825 square miles of land — it stretches from the Ten Thousand Islands in the south to Babcock Ranch in the north, reaching inland from the Gulf coast about halfway to the Atlantic coast — but you will also see what appears to be a vast supply of water — salt, fresh and brackish. Every human being below you, and all their someday children, have an interest in that water. The interest is both physiological, since they can't live without drinking and using it, and economic, since the great demand of humanity on our water supply is about to increase its value dramatically, officials predict.

 
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Nowadays when it comes to water, however, what you see is not usually what you get. Supplies must now come in greater volume from brackish and invisible sources ranging from 700 to 1,000 feet below the surface of the earth. That raises a couple of uncomfortable but reasonable questions: Is there enough water for us now, and will supplies be comfortably sufficient in 20 years?

 

In two decades, permits that allow coastal communities to use the deep wells will expire, in part because officials fear that such water supplies could run out.
So how much water do we really have?
"I wish I could answer that question," says Paul Matteauch, director of Collier County's water department, considered state-of-the art in Florida. "Are we going to run out? The (short) answer is, 'No, we're not going to run out.'"
There's a big "but" hovering on the edge of the short answer, however.
"Southwest Florida, almost in total, started converting surface and shallow water sources into deeper, more stable water sources starting more than 10 years ago," says Chip Merriam, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. Mr. Merriam spent more than a decade working in Southwest Florida before he moved to the east coast headquarters of the district, the largest in Florida and one of the largest in the United States, an organization responsible for the water needs of 16 of Florida's 67 counties.
"The risk you have is that in the next decade or two, Florida's deep water is going to be more consistently available, and there is some level of finite. But to what degree, at this point, in some of those systems, we don't know."
As we find out, we're going to change our sources and supplies, and open our wallets, officials warn. In some places that could happen sooner rather than later. Cape Coral's government, for example, is wrestling with doubling its water rates over the next five years, from an average monthly bill of $81 to $158.
"I don't think people appreciate the value of water, yet. Water is going to get a lot more expensive as the years go by. And as more utilities are forced to build reverse osmosis plants, the cost will be passed onto the consumers," says Margie Hapke, a spokesperson for public utilities in Collier County.
"In 20 years," predicts Doug Meurer, director of Lee County Utilities, "we're going to stop using traditional (fresh) water sources, or at least use only what we've used so far, and not increase that use. And we'll get alternative water from two sources: first from brackish ground water, which requires reverse osmosis plants to process, and then from runoff that we can store.
Meanwhile, both in Lee and Collier, local officials are wrestling with less local or not-local-at-all officials to gain some control of the fresh water that remains.
In Lee County, commissioners and others are beseeching the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more water down the Caloosahatchee River, in an effort to save returning grass beds and the fishery, which is showing increased signs of life for the first time in years.
In Collier County, the fresh water of the vast Picayune Strand, which is flanked on the east by the Fakahatchee Strand and on the west by the CREW Trust lands and Golden Gate, is now the subject of intense conflicts over its fresh water — which Collier officials want to use in quantities that don't destroy the environment, but which some others are reluctant to let them use.
Next week, Collier officials will conduct a very thorough, week-long empirical test to see just how much effect on the Picayune Strand they would have, by drawing down 6.5 million gallons of fresh water per day from wells there.
Whether or not they ultimately gain permission to use that water, they've reached a crossroads moment in water time.
In February, for the first time in history, Collier County used more brackish water from deep wells to provide clean drinking water to users, than fresh water. Not only that, but on an average water day, Collier meets the demands of its users with a supply that includes roughly a third fresh, a third brackish and a third reclaimed waste water, for irrigation, a statistic that many other counties, including Lee, can only envy, so far. (Cape Coral, again, is a pioneering exception within Lee — the city has used reclaimed water for irrigation for nearly 20 years.)
If that seems simple enough, it isn't, since no one in Collier County or in Lee County — which faces some problems Collier does not — are paying just for their own water anymore.
"We have to not only sustain a quality of life and address health and safety issues with public water supply in Collier, but we also have to sustain the Everglades," says Mr. Matteauch. "So we not only have human needs in Collier, but we have ecological needs and environmental needs."
Red tape and frustration
As different as Collier and Lee County may be in some respects, that problem is the same for both, as a sometimes rancorous meeting between board members of the South Florida Water Management District and a demanding public revealed last week, in St. Cloud.
Although officials had met there ostensibly to talk about water issues in central Florida, the subject became Southwest Florida, and the decision by Army Corps of Engineers officials not to release more water down the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee.
The regular, limited squirts of fresh water stopped on March 5, although the lake depth remains above the minimum level sanctioned as the no-more-releases level, and Army Corps officials continued to let water out to meet the interests of the sugar industry and urban users to the south of the lake.
"What upset all of us from Lee County was that the dialogue wasn't about rationing users fairly, and sharing the burden (of very dry conditions and water rationing), but about cutting Lee County off completely," says Commissioner Tammy Hall, who joined her fellow commissioner, Ray Judah, and others to argue the case for Lee County.
In effect, they said, the Army Corps allowed users on the east and south to continue using the lake's fresh water at 100 percent of their sanctioned capacity. But a seemingly arbitrary decision ended the supply to the Caloosahatchee.
That would have two effects, they argued: It took away a water supply that could extend the life of the river's fishery for years, and it put tremendous pressure on a water treatment plant at Olga, the only one in the Lee system that draws fresh water directly from the river, and supplies it after traditional filtration and cleaning — there is no reverse osmosis technology in place at Olga to filter out salts — to about 20,000 homes, or perhaps 50,000 people.

When fresh water doesn't come down the river in moderate quantities, the salt levels build so high that utilities officials have to notify every household, warning those whose health requires careful monitoring of salt intake not to use the water, says Mr. Meurer, the director. Then officials have to divert water from other systems into the area, which is not only cumbersome, but could potentially cause salt to infiltrate other systems.
"We want the Corps to allow us to receive a minimum release of 650 cubic feet per second," says Mr. Judah, the Lee commissioner. "That translates to a quarter inch off the lake in a week, which is negligible in terms of drawing down the lake level. Why are they picking on the Caloosahatchee and not requiring sacrifices from the sugar industry and others?"
It was a question the Corps couldn't answer, because the only Corps representative to attend the meeting was a public relations person, who read a letter from a senior Corps official — a colonel — into the record. The letter praised various groups for working together.
"If we have to moderate or work with you, we want to do that," Commissioner Hall told the board members of the South Florida Water Management District, who sat silently listening to her message — a message she was delivering to the Corps, through the elected officials on the board, and the hired officials sitting in the audience.
"We also want to have an understanding of what everybody else is doing.
We are not coming here saying, 'Keep us at this level, we're looking for a salinity level, not a volume level, and that's all we care about.'"

Instead, she said, "were looking for that fairness. I don't want to be put in a position to read about how this is an issue between the south and the west. We're beyond those days."
As if to prove that point, a Broward County board member of the South Florida Water Management District — elected to represent the interests of water users south of the lake — echoed the arguments of Lee officials.
"The Caloosahatchee River should not be singled out for (water) reduction," said, Shannon Estenoz, the water district board member.
Water district officials, meanwhile, are faced with the unenviable need to represent a variety of water interests across the 16-county kingdom for which they're responsible — urban users, agricultural users, and developers, as well as the "environment." That now largely means the vast and complex plan, with a newly revised strategy to buy sugar cane fields announced this month by Gov. Charlie Crist, to restore the Everglades.
In the political, economic and environmental process to decide who gets what water from the Picayune Strand in eastern collier County, or the Caloosahatchee River in Lee — or many other places — the Army Corps holds sway, playing a key and sometimes seemingly arbitrary role in those decisions.

The Corps' decisions are loosely leashed only with an indistinct and ill-defined requirement that the Army Corps listen and weigh the recommendations of local or regional officials, and the water management district officials, as they manage the lake.
"If we want to help the Caloosahatchee, which everybody does, our involvement is to make some kind of recommendations to the Corps…. But they are the ultimate authority in what they will do or not do," said Carol Wehle, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
Charles Dauray, a board member of the Southwest Florida Water Management District who represents Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, reacted with apparent displeasure.
"Carol, I would like to see a readdressing of this issue," he said. "Taxpayers, stakeholders, deserve better than confusion at the top. We need to be more clear as to how these decisions are made. It's very sloppy right now. The result is confusion, which transcends the real heart of issue. The process itself needs to be sharpened up."
Marching to the tune of two drummers: technology, money
Already, though, the technology and forward-looking energy of utilities officials in both Collier and Lee has been sharpened significantly.

In Lee County, one of the key requirements for long-term survival is the construction of storage facilities for runoff — especially the much-ballyhooed C-43 reservoir awaiting government funding so it can be built in Hendry County. That will allow the storage of huge quantities of water to be used not only for fresh water releases downstream into Lee, but for agricultural uses, which remain exceedingly important in Southwest Florida, officials say.
Commissioner Hall predicts that construction on the new reservoir — now in the Congressional pipeline for funding, she says — could be under way not this year but in the following year or two.
She and other Lee officials have traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the project, and sooner rather than later.
In Collier, meanwhile, like in Lee, officials still hope to use as much fresh water as they can while they continue to prepare for a future when the fresh sources are even more strictly limited, or just plain absent.
One problem with surface water (either fresh or salt) from certain sources, says Mr. Matteauch, the Collier County water director, is that it varies so much in quality, almost on a day-today basis. As a result, technicians are not easily able to set up water plants that dependably keep it clean all the time, since the requirements for cleaning water can change dramatically with the content of the water.
And many people reasonably wonder why officials can't just begin siphoning and cleaning water from the Gulf of Mexico.
"The first source one would think of is the Gulf," says Mr. Matteauch. "I got a letter not long ago literally addressed like this: 'To The Idiot Who Runs the Water Supply for Collier County.' The letter said we should be using reverse osmosis and desalinating salty water (the Gulf).
"Well, we are using reverse osmosis, but we didn't go to the Gulf because it has some other inherent problems. It's a surface supply, so the quality changes with the wind direction and the flow of rivers into it. That makes the water much more difficult and more expensive to treat. There are two reasons. One, because it changes so much from day to day, and two because it has a much higher salt content than the brackish water we use from the deep wells."
The salt, he explains, is not merely sodium chloride or table salt, but a variety of salts, including calcium carbonates and magnesium carbonates, which are metals or — as water engineers define them — dissolved solids.
In the underground wells, water quality doesn't change from day to day, and they contain only 15 percent of the dissolved solids that are found floating in Gulf water.
Collier has a singularly large capacity for using brackish water treated by reverse osmosis, and so do some communities in Lee — Cape Coral, which pioneered the technology in Southwest Florida, and Sanibel, for example.

Here's how it works, and why it's more expensive, explains Mr. Matteauch.
"By pressure, you drive water with the total dissolved solids across a membrane. There are two streams of water that come off the membrane in a plant — one is very high-quality drinking water, and the other is very high in all of those total dissolved solids. We call it a concentrate stream, high in salts. That we have to get rid of."
Creating those two streams of water requires a high amount of electric energy — a relatively high horsepower motor — to pump the water across the membrane.
And another reason for the expense is that the concentrate stream has to be pumped back into a well 3,100 feet below the surface. That well is permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers because the amount of dissolved solids in the water at that depth is roughly equal to the concentrate stream being pumped into it.
"That is a very expensive well, but we have to have it," Mr. Matteauch explains. "You start out drilling at 48 inches diameter, and you get to an 18- or 20-inch bore hole at about three-fifths of a mile."
But the entire process of reverse osmosis in the use of deep wells is about 75 percent efficient, he adds. "So for every 100 gallons of water I pull out of the ground, I can get 75 gallons of highquality water to pump to my customers, and 25 gallons to pump to the deep injection well."
If he were to use water from the Gulf, he'd get about one gallon of drinking water and one gallon of unusable concentrate, he estimates.
The same thing is true in Lee County, and officials across the region are quick to to realize a 21st-century water truth: People are going to have to pay for new technologies that use new sources of water.
"Having come from western water law and operations (Colorado), I see that a lot of issues Florida faces are similar," says Doug Meurer, the Lee County utilities director.
"You could say that the cheap water has been harvested, and now we're looking at water supply management. Enhanced technology and different management of ALL water sources. We can no longer just rely solely on surface water or ground water."
And those who want to use surface or fresh water may well be relying on the new Lake Okeechobee rule wherever they are, suggests Mr. Merriam, the Army Corps official.
"The Lake O rule says that users should have not just an allocation for water, but a live demand. And they can keep that as long as the land use, or the demand, is in place," he explains.
So, for example, if an agricultural user was once allocated 1,000 feet per second of water replenishment from Lake Okeechobee at certain times of the year, but he only uses 200 feet per second, his allocation will be changed to reflect his real need.

"There's a three-pronged test," Mr. Merriam says. "Your use has to be a reasonable request, it has to be beneficial and it cannot impact other users. So what you're demanding is what you need. And the benefit is kind of a public interest test."
Public interest, in other words, is the future and purpose of water.
A river runs through it

If history, per se, is the work of humans, then the modern history of the Caloosahatchee River begins with the Calusa Indians, who are not only not modern, but extinct.
What those humans did, however, was extend the winding old ribbon of water all the way out to Lake Okeechobee, says Chip Merriam, the deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. In effect, they ran the river right through our lives, since we are now inextricably linked to Lake Okeechobee by the Caloosahatchee.
A band of hardy pioneers put their own stamp on the work of the Calusa more than a century ago, and then between about 1932 and the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the modern history of the river, dredging a deep channel and straightening it.
"Florida's history is, 'Let's find ways to drain the swamp,'" says Mr. Merriam. "It's taken us several decades to realize that the environmental component shouldn't have been neglected. And how we're spending billions to reverse that."
We're also trying to figure out just what the river should be, and what it will take to make it that way.
"The river will never not play a vital role in the economy and lifestyle here, but that role changes," says Tammy Hall, a Lee County commissioner. "When Edison was here, it was a goods and services road. Now it's gone from a commerce role to an environmental and quality-of-life role. And now that we're hooked up to Lake O, we will never get off it. And we need those fresh water flushes for our livelihood."
The river has begun to come back from its near-death experience early in the decade. Grass beds and fisheries are showing greater signs of life than they have in years, officials say, but the river faces competitive conflicts with its own mother, if you will — the big lake.
Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, put it like this to her board of directors at a meeting in St. Cloud last week.
"You have two MFL (minimum flow) considerations which conflict: a minimum flow for the Caloosahatchee that would make you err on the side of sending more water, and a minimum flow in the lake, which would have you err on the side of keeping more water in the lake. So the MFLs are in competition for same volume of water."

It wasn't what people in Southwest Florida wanted to hear, and she didn't propose a solution.
Mr. Merriam, later asked to provide a report card on the river's performance, expressed ambivalence.
"One of the difficulties is that if you look at the river and its purpose now — flood protection and commerce — it does a very good job. But if you look at it and ask, 'Is it meeting the needs of an estuary?' Then it's not doing a very good job."
Even as recently as the 1950s and '60s, he recounts, the river was a "meandering ox-bow system, with low-level waterfalls. There was a lot of friction in the system, so that when it rained over Lake Okeechobee and over the entire basin, 1,000 square miles, that water took a significantly long period of time to very gently flow out to historic Estero Bay and into the Gulf."
The friction, in effect, cleaned the water and made it a valuable, inexpensive source of fresh water for users that also inspired a healthy ecology all the way into the Gulf.
"When it's channelized, and the friction is taken away, then the traditionally slow-moving water gets out of the
way very quickly, and allows those upstream to construct ditches, and push more water more quickly," Mr. Merriam says.
That's the tradition.
What about now?
"Yes, we can make the Caloosahatchee much better than it is," he says. "The goals and targets articulated are within our reach. The difficulty at this point, especially in a tight economy, is how to establish the priorities."
And that contemporary process — to establish the priorities and get something done — is creating a new history, one bound to prove distinctly different than the old history begun unknowingly by the Calusa Indians.

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