We recently posted about the Black Creek water transfer project (“Utilities challenge strategy to raise Keystone Heights lake levels; costs questioned.”) where we stated that the utilities were protesting for the wrong reasons.
The protest should be not about money but about trying to solve an over-pumping problem by taking water away from somewhere else and moving it to where it can be pumped out again when Jacksonville decides it needs more water to bring in more homes and developments.
Along those same lines, it is truly amazing to see how a Florida water management district, in this case the St Johns River Water Management District, can solve the water problems by magically decreeing a brand new, made-to-order set of Minimum Flows and Levels. We see that among the water districts, the MFLs seem intricately attached to industry’s needs at the moment. When industry demands more water, the districts obligingly find ways that the rivers can yield more water, or they invent ways to tweak a model so that they can amend the MFLs. Another trick is that they can ignore hard data on hand and use a model to make a guess that helps them reach the end they seek.
This latest miracle took place when “the district’s board voted unanimously to protect lakes Brooklyn and Geneva from “significant harm due to groundwater pumping.”
If the cause is too much groundwater pumping then the solution is less pumping. But that solution would cost someone money and it would demand political will and backbone and result in lawsuits and raise all kinds of problems that Florida’s leaders are not yet ready to face.
OSFR thanks Don Coble, Managing Editor of Clay Today for permission to use his photos.
SJRWMD votes to push ahead with Black Creek Project
Utility companies vow to fight revised minimum flow levels, cost overruns
By Don Coble [email protected]
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – The St. Johns River Water Management District’s governing board wasn’t threatened or swayed by a challenge from three North Florida utility companies Tuesday morning when it approved amended minimum flow levels (MFLs) for two habitually dry lakes in the southwest corner of Clay County.
A week after the North Florida Utility Coordinating Group requested a hearing in front of an administrative law judge to challenge changes to MLFs, the district’s board voted unanimously to protect lakes Brooklyn and Geneva from “significant harm due to groundwater pumping that turned large swatches of the lakes into a dry, crusty wasteland.
In the process, the board also reaffirmed its commitment to the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project which eventually will send water from the Black Creek to Lake Brooklyn. The project will include a 17-mile pipeline that eventually will pump 10 million gallons of water a day into Lake Brooklyn – and raise the water level there by almost 10 feet.
“On most parts Brooklyn you need a dune buggy, not a boat,” said district board chairman Douglas Burnett. “The water is so low.”
Carolyn Duke, who’s lived in Keystone Heights for nearly 41 years, said there’s only been water in Lake Brooklyn near her house just three times since 2005. “It’s dry and growing grass now,” she said.
Another resident said the shoreline on Lake Geneva has receded by more than 200 feet in the past few years. Docks that once hovered over a lake now look like second-story treehouses.
Lakes Brooklyn and Geneva are sandhill lakes within the upper Etonia Creek chain of lakes. Minimum levels for both systems were originally adopted in January 1996 based upon the best available information at the time.
The St. Johns River Water Management District said a new study that “included a rigorous review of potential metrics, along with additional data collection and analyses, that has resulted in the most appropriate recommended minimum levels for lakes Brooklyn and Geneva. MFLs represent the limit at which further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of an area.
The board heard from more than 30 residents, many wearing red shirts to support the Save Our Lakes organization, at the district’s headquarters in Palatka. Many made passionate, sometimes angry, pleas to complete the Black Creek Project.
Former State Senator and SJRWMD vice chairman Rob Bradley wasn’t happy NFUCG lumped the MLF revision with the Black Creek Project into the same argument.
“Those are two separate issues,” he said. “They [utilities] don’t have to participate in the Black Creek Project, but they do have to participate in repairing the damage at these lakes. Because Keystone Heights is a recharge area, it has born the brunt of development. We want the utilities who draw the most from this aquifer to participate in its recovery.
“[Tuesday] was an important step in establishing MFLs for the Keystone Heights region. Mission accomplished.”
Dwindling water levels have been years in the making
>Lake levels have dropped to alarmingly-low, if not barren, levels for years. A combination of limestone ground that allows water to seep into the aquifer, a lack of significant rain and a lack of policies to replenish repleted withdrawals are the primary reasons the once-flourishing lakes have become prairies of rotting fish and patchy grassland.
One Keystone Heights resident summed up the passion of the group with his brief comment: “We not only need to pass the Black Creek Project; we need to speed it up!”
When the board agreed to amend the MFL levels, the meeting was interrupted by cheers and clapping.
According to the SJRWMD, the reevaluated minimum levels will be used as a basis for imposing limitations on groundwater and surface water withdrawals in the District’s consumptive use permitting process and for reviewing proposed surface water management systems in the environmental resource permitting process.
Environmental values may include the habitat needed for native plant and animal species, as well as the many human uses of water such as navigation, recreation and aesthetics.
MFLs are one tool used for setting limits on groundwater and surface water withdrawals. Establishing MFLs is an important component of the District’s work of planning for adequate water supplies for today and for future generations while also protecting water resources within the District.
Three of the eight utility companies that make up the NFUCG – JEA, Clay Utilities Authority and Gainesville Regional Utilities – want an administrative hearing because they said they have to pay a significant part of the bill to complete the Black Creek Project. SJRWMD already got nearly $50 million from state and local funds for the $81 million project, but it’s well short of a $15 million filtering system to remove the natural dark tannins and nutrients produced by decaying vegetation in Black Creek that was added to the project last year. Although the utility group, which has a combined 1.2 million customers, gets its water from the aquafer that’s anchored by lakes in Keystone Heights, it doesn’t want to be responsible for a what it feels in an unfair portion of the difference.
The other members of the utility group include: City of Atlantic Beach, City of Neptune Beach, Town of Orange Park, City of Jacksonville Beach and St. Johns County.
“The utilities, their duty is to make sure there is reliable water available today and going into the future,” said Nicolas Porter, an attorney with de la Parte & Gilbert, which represents NFUCG. “Part of that is understanding what the impacts are going to be of regulations and how that is going to affect our customers, how that’s going to affect our planning.
“As you know, we have significant concerns about the MFLs that stem from a couple things. We have some technical concerns about the way the MFLs are derived. We also have some concerns what the implications are for the MFLs in terms of planning and costs, those things that I’ve mentioned. These are all public agencies. It’s important for us to understand what the costs are so we can plan.
“I know our previous comments have been entered into the record already, we do not want to engage in litigation. We don’t want to waste money of taxpayers, or anybody else fighting about these things. We understand the Black Creek Project is something the district is working on. The utility group thinks it’s a good project. It’s a project that, hopefully, will address the concerns of the people that are here today and everybody in the region.
“I want to make it clear: the utility group members are more than willing to pay their fair share of participating in the Black Creek Project. We don’t want to delay. We think this can be a win-win.”
Burnett was quick to respond.
“I’m glad you’re planning. We are, too,” he said. “Statue drives our planning. That’s how we got to the point we are. I understand your position. I also understand your customers may have to pay a little bit more. It’s not a lot – a few cents a month.”
Clay Utilities’ bill for the Black Creek Project is $8.7 million
Clay County Utilities Authority said it was asked to pay $8.7 million for the Black Creek Project, while JEA was asked to chip in nearly $14 million, CCUA public relations officer Celeste Goldberg said.
CCUA released the following statement shortly after Tuesday’s meeting:
“St. Johns River Water Management District is a valued partner in these endeavors. Based on SJRWMD studies, the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project is the only effective way to address the water demand impacts described in the MFLs. At this moment, we have not reached an agreement with the SJRWMD regarding the equitable allocation of responsibility to address the impacts for four public water suppliers. To protect the legal rights of our customers in the various rule processes underway, CCUA along with neighboring utilities filed legal petitions because an agreement with the SJRWMD could not be negotiated within required time periods. We are continuing to work toward a solution that represents our customers’ interests as well as advances the Black Creek Project to address the environmental issues with the Keystone Heights Lakes.”
Board members were presented with three Lower Cost Regulatory Alternatives by the NFUCG. The first calls for setting the minimum water levels for both lakes using the levels equivalent to the minimum infrequent high level and excluding the four most restrictive environmental metrics used by the district to determine the minimum levels. The second sets the minimum levels for the lakes including three of the four most restrictive environmental metrics used by the district, but using a 1957 baseline pumping condition instead of the “no pumping” baseline condition used in the proposed rules. The third creates a new recovery rule that would obligate the district to fully fund a water resource development project to offset all existing and projected impacts from all consumptive uses of water through 2045.
Bradley was incensed by the first option, especially since it would allow Lake Brooklyn to deteriorate into a grassy wetland instead of a lake….