Suwannee water rules delayed

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UF review finds water district data on Santa Fe and Ichetucknee lacking

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

State officials have pushed back dates for setting guidelines meant to protect the quantity of water in places such as the Suwannee River.
The Suwannee River Water Management District governing board voted unanimously Thursday at a meeting in Cedar Key in favor of allowing the establishment of minimum flows and levels (MFLs) for portions of the upper Suwannee to be held off until later next year. Middle portions of the river are still scheduled for 2015.
Minimum flows and levels, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, are meant to be used as a tool for water management districts in regulating how much water is pumped out of the ground before "significant harm" is done to various water bodies.
Carlos Herd, water supply director for SRWMD, said the setback is due to "everything that's going on" with recent draft MFL meetings concerning the Santa Fe River and Ichetucknee Springs.
Concerned citizens, scientists and even a University of Florida peer review panel took issue with some of SRWMD's approach to setting MFLs there at recent meetings on the matter.
The panel stated in a report that much of SRWMD's data regarding water flow, rainfall and groundwater pumping was not well supported and that many of the techniques for establishing levels were arbitrary. The report also questioned many of the techniques SRWMD used in obtaining data.
Environmentalists say the district's MFL for the region allows water levels and flows to fall well below a point of harm because its based on a long-term statistical representation of flow, not a set number.
"In other words," according to the Ichetucknee Alliace, "the river's flow can be lower than the MFL for a period of time and still not be considered in violation of the MFL."
According to the alliance, flows already fluctuate by as much as 25 percent less than what was known historically, which affects plant and animal life because of changing ratios of spring and surface waters, not to mention a concentration of pollutants when levels are low.
The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee are both already "significantly harmed," the group maintains, and more water should not be allowed to be pumped from the region.
Paul Still, a representative from the Bradford Soil and Water Conservation District, told the board Thursday, "There's probably a fatal flaw in the draft MFLs for the lower Santa Fe," and, he added, it was not a good idea for SRWMD to decide to remove certain language from the peer review after the fact, a move he said draws attention to specific areas in the review.
The model SRWMD used to determine future issuance of consumptive use permits in the area actually shows a shortfall in water supply, he said. The model should be based on "no impact," yet it has not been addressed.
"I don't think that's entirely accurate," Herd said, adding that the model has been misunderstood.
Ann Shortelle, SRWMD director, said, "The peer review did not state there was a fatal flaw." The district did exactly what it was asked to do, she said. "I think what Mr. Still is referring to ... is items of policy."
Still, in a later interview, did say that some of what he was referring to were items of policy, though he was firm in his description of a flawed model.
"Basically, what they're (peer review panel) saying is that the linear model is not appropriate. If your model is wrong, there is clearly a fatal flaw in your procedure."
Shortelle, at the meeting, said the MFLs for the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee were "cross boundary" MFLs, meaning that some of the region also lies within the St. Johns Water Managment District.
The two districts have different numbers, she said, but are arriving at "the same general answer."
The district has been advised to "tighten up the document," she said, but "it would be wrong to say there's a fatal flaw."
Annette Long, of Save our Suwannee, said Monday she was dismayed at hearing steps to prevent harmful water withdrawals were being held back even longer, though she also said she's not confident that when MFLs on the upper and middle Suwannee are adopted they will do much good.
"MFLs were set in St. Johns lakes, too, and then the lakes started drying up and they lowered MFLs," she said.
"This is all political. They're being told to keep issuing permits.
"Utility companies don't like MFLs because it could cost more for people in the city to have water," but that means people in rural areas wind up paying for people in the city. "MFLs should be based on MFLs."