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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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.

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