Some unhappy with reserving water for Everglades

It has been hailed as a milestone for Everglades restoration.

After a year of hearings and rewrites, the South Florida Water Management District governing board voted last month to adopt a rule to reserve water for the environment from the restoration of the Picayune Strand in rural Collier County.

The water reservation is a first for the Everglades and fulfills a federal requirement to get federal money to continue tearing out roads, plugging canals and installing huge pumps to return natural water flows in the Picayune Strand, once planned as a sprawling subdivision known as Southern Golden Gate Estates.

Collier County utilities officials see the milestone as a potential stumbling block. That’s because the county wants to increase its allocation of drinking water from the shallow underground aquifer that feeds Picayune Strand.

The county filed a legal challenge Feb. 20 to the reservation with the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, seeking to have an administrative law judge declare the reservation rule invalid.

The challenge is now on hold while the county and the water management district conduct well pump tests to determine whether the county’s allocation request would violate the reservation. The analysis could take months, according to legal papers requesting that the case be put on hold.

Water managers say the talks with the county will not water down the reservation, but environmental advocates are watching the challenge closely.

“We think the rule is a good rule,” said Chip Merriam, the district’s deputy executive director for water resources. “We think the reservation is sound.”

A reservation is a legal mechanism water managers can use to make sure enough water from restoration projects is saved for fish and wildlife or for public health and safety before it is used for drinking water.

Computer models that set up the reservation indicate that the county’s request for more water might dip into the amount of water the reservation requires be set aside, Merriam said.

The district has agreed with the county that “intuitively” the county’s request would not violate the reservation, Merriam said.

He said the well pump tests will prove whether that is true or not.

The county and the water management district have been at odds for more than two years over the county’s request to increase the amount of water it can withdraw from the Lower Tamiami aquifer around the edges of the restoration project.

Collier County wants to get 26.4 million gallons per day on average, up from its current permit for 18.8 million gallons per day.

The additional withdrawals would allow the county to maximize the capacity of its existing water treatment plants and reduce the amount of more expensive water it would have to get from deeper underground sources.

Speaking before the county filed the challenge, the county’s Water Director Paul Mattausch said the county does not want to kill the reservation — only confirm that the reservation and the county request for more water are not in conflict.

“We’re working jointly and very cooperatively (with the district),” Mattausch said.

Environmental advocate Brad Cornell said he is “extremely disappointed” by the county challenge.

If the tests show the county request would violate the reservation, Cornell said he fears the county will decide to put the rule challenge back on track.

That would be a “big impediment to Everglades restoration,” Cornell said.

Under a 2000 law that set up a federal-state partnership to pay for Everglades restoration, a water reservation must be adopted before the water management district can get federal money for the Picayune Strand project.

The House version of the 2009 spending bill includes $24 million for the project; the Senate has yet to vote on its version.

The challenge cites more than a dozen reasons why the reservation should be declared invalid, including that the district exceeded its authority, unfairly exempted some users and did not protect existing users.

Collier County is not the only potential water user affected by the reservation for Picayune Strand.

Large landowners and agricultural interests in rural Collier County also would have to comply with the reservation.

At least one landowner, Collier Enterprises, is OK with the reservation, company spokeswoman Jennifer Varoski said last week.

The company already has all the water it needs for its agriculture operations, and its proposed new town of Big Cypress east of Golden Gate Estates will use a deeper aquifer unaffected by the reservation, she said.

“We support the district’s effort to ensure the restoration of the Picayune Strand and are happy we could participate in the public rule-making process,” Varoski wrote in an e-mail.

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