Sunday, September 18, 2011

SWFWMD to Allow Chassahowitzka River to be Reduced 11% in Flow

Chassahowitzka River, Florida
Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it?  
SWFWMD is supposed to be protecting sensitive coastal river systems, especially those sustained almost entirely by flows from fresh water springs.  How could it be contemplating a planned reduction from any of these fragile natural systems so unique to Florida?
And what’s worse, the legal basis and science being used to set these new levels will be applicable to virtually all coastal river systems sustained by spring flows.  This includes such iconic systems as Weeki Wachee, Crystal, Homosassa, Silver and Rainbow springs as well as the Anclote and Pithlachascotee Rivers to name some of the most prominent along Florida’s west coast.  If SWFWMD gets this policy wrong on one, it’ll be wrong for all.

This is happening because Florida Law (Chapter 373.042, Florida Statutes) requires the water management districts (or DEP) to establish the Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) for “aquifers, surface watercourses, and other water bodies to identify the limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area.” (Emphasis added)

MFLs were intended to be, and largely have been, beneficial by setting the limit that man’s activities would be intentionally allowed to negatively impact a designated water body.  While they are beneficial in one sense, however, they can be injurious in another. 

The concept of setting a minimum flow and level was to provide protection and even recovery for levels found to be already below the minimum.  It was placed into law and required of the water management districts (another core mission, Herschel?) years ago when water from many of these natural systems was being pumped or diverted at a rate that would destroy them.  Kissengen Springs  which ceased continuous flow in 1950 is a prime example of what they were intended to prevent.

When MFLs were first pursued, the spring was already too far gone to be recovered.  Today, it’s just an abandoned, trash strewn mud hole.  Stark evidence of what man can do unintentionally and otherwise to his own nest.  Recovery is not feasible because the withdrawals that caused its destruction would be difficult or impossible to replace for those who now use the water.

The near destruction of the lakes and wetlands in northwest Hillsborough and Pasco counties in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when Pinellas County and the City of St. Petersburg were pumping massive quantities of water and piping it away to their own public distribution systems on the other hand, is an example of MFL’s as they were intended to be used.

Determining that the levels there should be higher was the scientific basis for the historic agreement between the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, of which Pinellas and St. Pete were members, and SWFWMD by which over 100 million gallons of permitted pumping per day were given up.  Today the area is well on its way to recovery.
So setting minimum flows and levels can be a good thing but in the case of the Chassahowitzka River it simply isn’t.

At one time in the past and perhaps no longer, a primary test for issuance of a water use permit was whether or not the withdrawal or diversion would cause “harm” to the water resource or ecology of the area.  If harm was going to be caused, the permit was not considered to be in the interest of the public and was either modified or denied.
I don’t know if the law or the district’s administrative rules might have changed over the years in this respect but with the advent of MFLs a new criterion has become operative.  The test for the amount of impact a withdrawal may have now, apparently, is limited by “significant harm.”  

Whereas “harm” was not allowed in the past, it is apparent that under the MFL test whatever “harm” meant then, it will now be allowed up to the point it becomes “significant.”   This is obviously a more liberal test that in my mind creates some kind of legal dichotomy.

It brings about a curious predicament that bubbles up where the district determines an MFL has been set but not yet reached.  By saying the water resources of the area have not yet been “significantly harmed” because the actual levels are higher than a minimum that would cause “significant harm,” it is also effectively saying more of what used to be classified as “harm” can be allowed until it reaches a level of significance. 

In the case of the Chassahowitzka River, therefore, SWFWMD is saying it will allow the river to be permanently lowered by 11% more than its current average flow before the accumulation of “harm” becomes significant enough to allow no more. 
This will become an institutionalized policy of the Governing Board that is nothing short of an invitation to come and pump because we have decided it’s okay to harm the river until the harm is “significant.”  Supposedly, this would occur when the river’s flow is permanently reduced by 15%.

While the springs of the Chassahowitzka system, of which there are over a dozen, are not likely to become the Kissengen Springs of Citrus County, any further reduction of flow at all will move them in that direction … in perpetuity.

The locals will tell you the river has already been significantly impacted by reduction in rainfall and a rise in Gulf water levels which has moved salt water further up river than they can remember.  The resultant invasion of saltier water is degrading the freshwater-dependent growth along the river’s edge and in the river itself, and saltwater barnacles are showing up on boat bottoms where they never have before.  They know this because some have lived there most of their lives, some for generations. 

Unfortunately, the district tends to disregard such “anecdotal evidence” in favor of the scientific data it has gathered from wells in the area, even though the district’s studies state that records for the quantity of water discharged by the spring only go back to 1997, and records for the river’s “stage” (elevation of the river’s surface) only go back to 1999. 
The SWFWMD governing board is a lay body that is about to set an institutional policy to be administered through a legal system that translates science into regulatory criteria and applies it through a bureaucratic filter in order to prevent “significant harm” to a water resource but allow “harm” up to a very narrowly defined point, and, it is attempting to institute this process in order to successfully “manage” river systems that are among the most sensitive in the world.  It is a situation where anything can go wrong at many points.

How can such an extraordinary decision, one which will affect this river in perpetuity, one which requires more common sense than science, be made in such a determined and myopic manner?

It is as if the tsunami of wisdom that strongly suggests this is a very small river and any programmed, intentional reduction in its flow is, by any definition, unwise and not acceptable, is being ignored.  Is it simply agency inertia, an internal momentum, to identify the finest amount of further impact that can be identified, and to proudly and stubbornly say it can be allowed?
Significantly, the river is designated an “Outstanding Florida Waterway”.  Doesn’t that mean anything?  According to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection,
An Outstanding Florida Water, (OFW), is a water designated worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes. This special designation is applied to certain waters, and is intended to protect existing good water quality.”
Yes, this statement simply but strongly suggests that such water bodies as “The Chazz”, as the locals call it, should be given extra care not extra impacts from man’s activities.

To say the least, attempting to manage nature so finely in a regulatory environment that is subject to the ever-changing political whims of an ill-informed governor and a vindictive legislature led by special interests, all to achieve such a narrow result can be disastrous, and it will be permanent if it doesn’t work.  It is a very risky thing to do. 

We should not intentionally try to allow planned damage to sensitive natural systems under any circumstance.  There has already been enough.  We should not be planning to allow more.
The action that should be taken by the board is to set the MFL at the river’s current or even earlier levels and allow no further permanent reductions in flow caused by consumptive uses from the springshed.

An interesting side note

Floral City is very small community that truly is nothing more than a stop light at the intersection of US 41 and County Road 48 a few miles south of Inverness in Citrus County.  It is relevant to the issue about MFLs on the Chassahowitzka River because, though the city is very small, it has a central water supply system, the Floral City Water Association, Inc.  The association’s website has this to say about its company profile:

Floral City Water Association Incorporated was formed by the people of the Floral City community in 1969. We initially had 250 members served by a single 4″ well. We are overseen by a seven member non-compensated Board of Directors and are staffed by six employees. We take pride in that we have efficiently operated this member owned utility for over 42 years and through our member’s conservation efforts, we have the lowest per capita usage of any water utility in Citrus County.    We currently have 52.5 miles of distribution line and supply the majority of the water needs for the Floral City town area, Floral City Elementary School, Withlapopka Island, Duval Island, and many outlying areas. Water is provided by groundwater at our facility located on Florida Ave. Our second facility, built in 1984, was unfortunately shut down in 2005 as a result of high organic content in the source water which leads to the creation of TriHaloMethanes. It remains for use only in emergency situations which would threaten the integrity of our system.

The point here is this.  Floral City is located very close to the Chassahowitzka system springshed.  The above suggests they should be looking for a new supply because one of their supply sources was shut down due to contamination of its wells and is used now only for emergency purposes.  The fact is, they are.  And where would you suspect they want to drill new wells?  You guessed it.  From the Chassahowitzka system springshed.

In fact, they have already been granted by the Citrus County Commission a Conditional Use Permit to construct a sewage treatment facility and well field on Stagecoach Trail, a significant distance to the west of Floral City.

The questions that arise in my mind are:

Why would the Floral City Water Association want to build a wellfield so distant from where its primary concentration of customers is located?  The cost of building a major pipeline that long would be significant.

Would all the rural residents along Stagecoach Road be forced to “hookup” to the new system?  Every water utility knows that the only way to finance expansion is to bring on new customers or raise the rates on existing ones but forcing current rural residents to help pay for it would be wrong.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply partner with the City of Inverness to provide Floral City water?

Why this particular parcel?  Who owns it?  Why is it considered the only place to build a sewage treatment plant and wellfield so far away.  Were other sites closer to Floral City considered? 

And finally, what impact will this have on “The Chazz”?  It seems very fortuitous an MFL is being set at this particular time that would guarantee water could be pumped from its springshed and which would by rule allow an 11% reduction in the river’s flow, doesn’t it?

A final thought

The assault on sensitive spring-fed river systems will continue given the lack of environmental sentiment prevailing in Florida politics these days.  This issue is not with the scientists in this case as much as it is with the policy makers.  The lack of simple wisdom is insidious and reflective if the illness in Florida’s current political condition.  The future of Florida resides in how these relatively small but cumulatively enormous issues are resolved.  The idea that we can effectively allow an additional 11% reduction in flow of the very small Chassahowitzka River through regulations based upon some alleged scientific measurement of mollusks and worms is ridiculous.  And the fact that the mistake will be permanent if the exercise is wrong, is beyond rational.


  1. The sea is rising (evidence from the Indian River Lagoon in my backyard). However, I believe that the problem are the words “significant harm”. The law ought to be changed to read “harm”. That way agencies and county and city governments could not withdraw additional ground water when it harms the spring or other water body.

  2. I agree on all points here. Craig’s article was informative and he should continue to hammer this topic in the next few months. It is also interesting that the District just laid off Dr Jon Morales, one of the scientists who was working on MFLs for streams/rivers.

  3. Sonny, you raise some important concerns. Curious; have you had a chat with Marty Kelly? He is the lead scientist in these matters. I have always respected his thoughtful balanced approach dedicated to protecting the resource for many years. Would be interesting to hear his perspective. Never thought of him as being moved by politics; only science. And, at his age could be retired if anyone tried to make him modify his science respected nationally. And, Bill (Bilenky) would not let Governing Board vote without reviewing issues if any legal question on incorrect interpretation of statutes.Thanks for bringing these issues to our attention.

  4. Not really questioning the science. Marty’s way smarter than me about those things. It’s the disparity in the law and opportunity for the board to weigh in with some common sense. Trying to regulate a reduction in flow of not more than 11% is pretty unwise if you ask me. You can play with that kind of concept on rivers with large surface drainage basins and huge ranges of flows between droughts and floods like the Peace, Hillsborough, Alafia, etc., but not little spring-fed rivers where flow is already limited and varies little between drought and flood. Flows of such rivers cannot be considered “excess.” All of their flows are base flows that make the rivers what they are. All of these springs are being placed under greater pressure to be diverted for bottling and expanding communities. Gallon by gallon they’ll be destroyed if we’re not adamant about protecting them now.


  5. Looks good. You certainly are on to Significant Harm. ie, what is acceptable harm, and to whom? Keep up the good work.

  6. You have nicely laid out the stupidity of this approach........what is the path to solution and right resolution??? What is the best action plan to REVERSE this wrong process and approach?? What minds might be changed with the correct amount of pressure? If the board are simply puppets of Scott as I've heard countless times, must Herschel Vinyard and Macnamara get some heat??

  7. If you agree and want to communicate with the district, you can and should send a letter to

    SWFWMD Chairman H. Paul Senft, Jr. at Brooksville Headquarters
    2379 Broad Street
    Brooksville, FL 34604-6899

    or email him c/o

    Doesn't have to be elaborate. Just say the river has been harmed enough and that the MFL should not allow any further withdrawals within the springsheds of the springs that feed the river or that would reduce the flow of the river in any manner.

  8. Sonny, Great explanation of a disastrous mix of two parts of a statute. Is anyone thinking of a rule challenge??

  9. On first glance, your headline "SWFWMD to Allow Chassahowitzka River to be Reduced 11% in Flow" is a tad alarmist. The program only establishes this flow rate as its bellwether, or "minimum flow," not so much a green light for immediate further impacts.

    As a lifelong Floridian (like yourself), just look around — the degradation began way back before we were kids, and nothing short of an unrealistic permanent moratorium will stop it. At least a minimum flow puts some brakes on (as opposed to granting carte blanche). Besides, SWFWMD was never really excited about the imposition of the state program, but is statutorily required to scientifically establish its basis for calculation. Marty Kelly has done this, with hands somewhat tied, as best as can be done.

    In the long run, what we don't exactly like isn't so much SWFWMD's decision-making, but the inevitability of developmental impacts. Doesn't matter if you're a resident of the Outback, the Amazon, the Alaskan Refuge or the Chassahowitzka springshed — it's painful to bear witness to.

  10. Hey Sonny - Semper Fidelis - from an old DER hand and later WMD board member who served with you, Jake, John, Bill Hinkley and more. Great blog. Just found it today. Great photos also. Tallahassee

  11. Chassahowitzka is my favorite vacation spot. In my opinion the most beautiful areas in Florida are from Homassassa to Cedar Key. The rich diversity and clear rivers are nature’s gifts that I must see often. So, that’s why I am saddened and repulsed by what the SWFWMD plans to let happen to the flow of the Chazz. It seems an 11% reduction would “significantly” change the characteristics of the river system and would indeed do some form of “harm”. I think that a few things should be put in to perspective; first, the words “harm” and “significant” should be clearly defined and examples or real world situations should be used. Harm to me in my back yard might be a different level of actual damage than harm to you in your back yard. Next, the science that is used (as the blog clearly states) isn’t complete. How can you get the big picture when you’re only looking at a few constituent parts? All of the little things make a difference in the big picture; therefore need to be counted. Finally, why don’t the policy makers ever listen to the locals? Who knows the state and health of a natural system better than the ones who fish, camp, boat, live, breathe, and work in the system every day? I’m sure that the locals and the scientists who care about these things could prove why this should not be allowed, but it seems once again bureaucracy is taking its’ toll. A sad day for us, for the manatees, a sad day for all.

  12. Absolutely mind boggling. I am a firm believer that waterways in this area should be left alone. There are much better technologies out in our world, that can produce freshwater for us, than to tear apart an ecosystem. I completely agree with your idea that once you start an action, whether it be beneficial or damaging, you will not stop until total harm is inflicted.
    And "significant harm"? Please! Any harm is significant. That is like saying that if you shoot someone it is ok if you hit them in the arm, because it is less significant than if you shoot them in the face.
    Policy makers and special interest need to stay out of the environment. Let them live in an ecosystem that has been raped by their own company. Let them see the devastation first hand at what they have done to save a few bucks. Its time to open some eyes and minds. We can see into the future, so lets change the present. Thank you for posting this, and I hope to get more awaredness for this issue!