The Putrefied Forest

Southwest Florida Water Management District's practice of storing agricultural water in the Myakka River Watershed is killing the trees and destroying wildlife habitat. Plans are in place to alleviate but not solve the problem.

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It's spring, but the trees that 10 years ago canopied Flatford Swamp cast no shade; they display no bud, no flower, and no crown of leaves. Lifeless tree trunks not yet felled rise from the drenched earth, their branches twisted and spastic, like arthritic bones. They are the victims of an ill-conceived water management plan that has changed the face of this approximately 2,500-acre swamp in east Manatee County. The Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud), one of five legislatively appointed districts in the state, purchased 2,357 acres of the Flatford Swamp in 1992 as a function of its responsibility to provide safe water and protect natural systems in its 16-county jurisdiction, which stretches north to south from Levy to Charlotte and east to west from Pinellas to Polk counties.

According to its own Upper Myakka River Watershed Resource Evaluation (1991), just before the purchase, the district explained that Flatford Swamp was pristine, a 'unique area of forest important to the region for its excellent wildlife habitat, undisturbed and in overall excellent condition." In addition, the district intended to secure a role for the site in 'detaining and filtering runoff from nearby agricultural lands." This turned out to be a destructive purpose for the swamp because according to Swiftmud's own 1998 study Tree Mortality Assessment of the Upper Myakka River Watershed, the trees drowned from too much irrigation water, and the wildlife has all but disappeared.

As far back as the 1970s, the swamp has absorbed agricultural water, but in the late 1980s and 1990s, the amount of runoff into the swamp and into the Myakka River Watershed dramatically increased. And with the exception of farms then and now out of compliance with their water-use permits, Swiftmud has approved every drop. For modest fees, the district issues all water-use permits in 16 counties for agricultural, commercial, industrial or residential purposes.

The Tree Mortality Assessment found that many thousand mixed hardwood trees, including laurel oaks, Carolina ash, tupelos, live oaks, red maple, slash pine and black gum, were either stressed or had died from excessive runoff, particularly during the dry season (November-May), when rainfall is low and the swamp normally has its drying out period. Thus, the needs of the watershed habitat and the needs of the row crops clash in a regulatory battlefield stacked in favor of the crops. The swamp hasn't been dry in 15 years, to say nothing of the rising water table in the Myakka River Watershed and State Park.

For example, in another part of the watershed, the Maple Branch Swamp, which comprises part of the 225 acres of the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, a privately owned preserve and educational institution since 1973, has witnessed, among other vanishings, the disappearance of a red maple tree canopy that 10 years ago shaded its long, serpentine boardwalk. Where there was once shade, now there's sunlight, water, mud, cattails, willow, and invasive vines and weeds covering what should be dry season under-story. Despite the tree mortality, Crowley's manager Debbie Dixon remains optimistic about the future of the swamp. 'They have to fix the problem," she says, referring to Swiftmud. She says she believes the current problems will be instructive for the next generation.

But the problem extends beyond Flatford and Crowley. As early as 1998, the district determined that 101 acres of mixed hardwoods in the north Myakka State Park had also come under stress or were dead. Currently, the trees surrounding row croplands south of Flatford Swamp on Clay Gully Road show similar symptoms.

The die-off has crept into private property as well. Pat Galliger lives on Long Creek, which feeds into the swamp. She says two of her acres have dead or dying trees on them. Seven years ago, she says, the acreage was 'seasonally wet and dry, and now it's full to the brim" with water during the dry month of April. 'I haven't done anything about it," she says. 'I'm just watching them (the trees) die, but maybe I should."

Many people are concerned about the die-off. Chris Becker, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) environmental specialist for the Myakka State Park, believes the entire watershed, Myakka State Park, and its wildlife could be 'severely threatened."

But the waters continue to flow. According to its 2002 watershed reports, Swiftmud has approved 81 consumptive water-use permits that allow 67-million gallons of water per day to be pumped up from the ground within the Upper Myakka Watershed. Swiftmud estimates 8-million to 12-million gallons per day of excess water run into the swamp; the larger watershed absorbs the remaining excess, which the district has not quantified. Moreover, much of this ground water usage occurs within a 'most impacted area," or MIA. The MIA is part of the larger Eastern Tampa Bay Water Use Caution Area, so designated because of water shortages and rapid draw-downs on underground water. The draw-downs help encourage intrusion of undesirable saltwater, sulfates, chlorides, and solids into the aquifers that provide 80 percent of Swiftmud's water supply, including drinking water.

Agriculture pumps most of the water. Two of the largest farms that directly impact the swamp have recently taken steps to reduce runoff in cooperation with Swiftmud: Classie Farms is authorized to pump 11.6-million gallons per day, and Pacific Lands, sometimes called Pacific Tomato Growers, is permitted to pump 4.25-million gpd. Hi Hat Ranch, the family business of Tom Dabney, who's also Vice Chairman of the Swiftmud Governing Board, holds a permit for 6.07-million gpd.

Swiftmud is a peculiar creation of the Florida Legislature. It was established in 1961 for flood protection, but since the passage of the 1972 Water Resources Act, its activities have expanded each decade into the minutia of water supply, water quality, and natural systems protection. Approximately 57 percent of its budget, $199-million in 1999, comes from its ad valorem taxing authority on real estate; 28 percent derives from intergovernmental sources, such as the Save Our Rivers program, and the rest is from permits and interest. Half of the budget funds regulatory activity, and the other half is distributed to water projects among nine local basin boards, which cooperate with local governments, businesses and other regulatory agencies. Decision-making rests with the 11-member governing board, eight of whom reside in the district. The others serve at-large. All members are appointed by Florida's governor and confirmed by the state senate to four-year terms without pay; members of local basin boards too, serve at the pleasure of the governor with senate confirmation, but they serve three-year terms.

The professional backgrounds of the governing board members affect the way the district functions. Most members have direct economic ties to Florida's largest water-use industries such as agricultural, real estate/home building and commercial development and urban/suburban infrastructure, and mining. For example, the chair of the board Ronnie Duncan, Tarpon Springs, is president of Duncan Enterprises, a commercial real estate consulting and development business. Pamela Fentress, Lake Placid, is the financial operations manager for family-owned ag-businesses such as Lost Lake Groves and 4-D Citrus and Sod, among others. Margarita Dominguez, Tampa, holds the VP job for Technology and Support Services for Tampa Electric Company (TECO). Ron Johnson's the VP for the sand and rock miner E.R. Jahna Industries, which also has interests in citrus, cattle, trucking and ready-mix concrete. Three board members, John Renke, Monroe Coogler and Heidi McCree, show legal backgrounds in property and environmental law, with 'community" consensus-building skills added for sweetener. Pinellas-based Treasurer Watson Haynes has worked in governmental affairs, and Janet Kovach of Tampa is community affairs specialist for CF Industries Inc. and serves on Hillsborough County's Republican Executive Committee and Women's Republican Club. Vice Chairman Tom Dabney, a frequent speaker for the board, is a partner in Hi-Hat Ranch or Hi-Hat Cattle & Groves as it's called in some documents, which according to Dabney's vita on the district's Web site, farms cattle and groves. But this description is inaccurate because the farm's water permit indicates an exclusive and much more intensive water use for sod and row crops — more than 6-million gpd. Dabney's also the owner of Gulf Coast Property Services, which manages and develops residential and commercial properties such as Venice Palms and Gateway to Sarasota. Hi Hat Ranch is on deck to become a new village, pending the approval of Sarasota's 2050 plan, and the ranch's water permit is a valuable part of it, especially should the Florida Legislature privatize water supply; as it stands now, the water supply belongs to the public. Dabney's also a member of the Home Builder's Association and the Sarasota Republican Party Chairman's Circle.

Thus the Swiftmud's board represents dominant economic and political power. It sits in the crossfire of conflicting duties: meeting the water demands of the area's ruling businesses while trying to protect the water and natural systems those businesses exploit — the systems on which the natural environment and residents depend, the systems that make Florida habitable. Environmental interests and informed residential consumers are an important but subordinate influence in this mix.

However, Swiftmud is trying to remedy the Flatford Swamp issue. According to Steve Minnis, Swiftmud Sr. Community Affairs Coordinator, Swiftmud has updated its basis of review for water use permit applications in ways that will help prevent more excessive flow. It has also obtained the cooperation of two large water users, Classie Farms and Pacific Lands, in a first-phase effort to build surface water exchange projects designed to reduce annual flows into the swamp by 1.6-million gpd. Most of the reductions will occur during the peak months of the dry season, March-May, when the involved parties hope to reduce flows by 4.18-million gpd.

The Classie Farms project came on line February 2002 and cost over $3.1-million dollars split evenly between Swiftmud and Classie. Using tail water ditches, a pump station, pipeline and storage reservoir, the project aims to capture and then reuse the farm's irrigation water before it enters the swamp. The water will saturate 1,186 of the farm's more than 9,000 acres, which will offset ground water withdrawals.

Nearby, Pacific Tomato's system is still under construction. It will use similar elements, like the pipeline and pump station, a storage reservoir and ponds — not to capture water runoff but to withdraw it directly from the swamp, and use it for irrigation. Like Classie, Pacific will share the cost of this smaller project, which in phase 1 totals $502,634. In addition, Swiftmud has set up four transect stations in the swamp to monitor results of the projects. If the first phases prove effective, the project will be expanded, though no timetable has been set nor money allocated for this eventuality.

Will the projects work? Opinions run the gamut. David Tomasko, Swiftmud Senior Environmental Scientist, seems to think they could work but says there are problems and many unknowns. One of the problems has to do with the pervasive growth of invasive vegetation, which clogs the swamp and holds water in, 'so it doesn't drain like it used to," says Tomasko.

Nor does the district know what the subsurface water table should be for healthy trees. For example, portions of the swamp's uplands appear dry, but large, seemingly healthy black gums have recently toppled under their own weight. Their roots are too shallow because of high subsurface water levels. 'That water table may need to be 3 feet below the surface," says Tomasko, for roots to grow deep enough to hold a tree up, and that's a dry swamp.

Chris Becker, DEP Environmental Specialist for the Myakka Watershed, says at best, the projects will recover 25 percent of the excess flow into the swamp. 'It's like treating one hole on a victim that's been shot four times; and by the time you get to the state park, that's a drop in the bucket."

For his part, Myakka State Park manager Robert Dye is less concerned about the trees dying at the park's northern edge. 'Fifty years ago those trees weren't there," he says. The area was apparently dry prairie, 'and we changed it when we started doing fire suppression," that is, built a dam to help make the area wetter. The Carolina ash, moved in, and now it's too wet for them.

Instead, Dye is concerned about contamination from the mixing of underground irrigation water with surface waters, which are compositionally different; what's more, the underground water is also passing through agriculture's chemical mixture. 'This changes soil and water chemistry and how that affects the critters," he says, including fish, birds and other wildlife, from microbes, to earthworms and scarabs, to coon, fox, deer, even panthers; they're all important; they all play a role in the balance. Dye adds, 'They (Swiftmud) haven't studied the chemistry, and it wouldn't be hard to do." Biochemical change also affects trees and vegetation.

Related to the issue of biochemical changes, Tom Dabney has said that the farmers implementing the surface water exchange projects are watching to see how the reuse of irrigated water affects their crops. 'They're concerned about the possibility of disease," he said.

In addition, Becky Ayesh, a resident in the area, president of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and a well-known gadfly to the district, doubts the effectiveness of tail water recovery to capture runoff at all. Many district farms use the technique, including the Classie and Pacific projects. Ayesh says, 'I've sat in district board meetings and watched farmers stand up and say tail water recovery doesn't work." She says the water sits in the retention areas too long and seeps out laterally below the surface.

Ayesh has a point. The district does not know and has not studied how fast and how far water travels below the surface in the Myakka Watershed. 'You would think they would know that," says Ayesh, 'just like you would think they would know how much water they allow to pump into the watershed, but they don't." Minnis explains that the district does meter water use, but a complex set of variables goes into the calculation of total use, and more important, total excess runoff. He says the district should have a better understanding of the excess in 2003 when it's scheduled to set minimum levels for the Myakka River. However, given that there's too much water in the system, and Becker has raised this point, one would expect the district to consider maximum levels, as well.

Despite the problems and many unknowns that concern others, Swiftmud's Tom Dabney is sanguine about the Classie Farms and Pacific Tomato projects. He says the participants have been model corporate citizens. 'They were in compliance with their permits, so they didn't have to work with us. They could have litigated, but they've cooperated."

Dave Tomasko, too, seems to think well of Classie owner, John Falkner. 'He's a progressive guy," says Tomasko, and given corporate mores these days, that may be a rare find. Thus cooperation is the applicable buzzword for Swiftmud, rather than litigation, cooperation with industry, agriculture and developers to solve problems.

However, for Flatford Swamp, Crowley Museum and the Myakka River Watershed and State Park, the 'jewel" of Florida as it has been called, Chris Becker says, 'they haven't solved the problem. They've taken steps in the right direction, put in some projects, but they can't call it a solution." Certainly, the district feels the political necessity to look concerned, look fair and look effective, but it won't take long for the trees, the wildlife — the whole Myakka River system for that matter, to sort out what's real and what's not. The dead trees bear testament to past actions; what occurs in the future will also be written in the landscape.

Freelance writer Preston Whaley can be reached at [email protected].

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