BROOKSVILLE — About 200 people turned out Tuesday to tell a state water agency to reject a proposal that would allow up to 15 percent of the natural habitat along the Chassahowitzka and Homosassa rivers to be destroyed.
"It's a question of values," Jan Howie of the Florida Native Plant Society told the board. "Do we really want to reduce the habitat in these rivers by 15 percent? Why would we not want to maintain 100 percent of the habitat in these rivers?"
Ultimately the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board, after listening to about three hours of testimony, decided to back off what its staff was recommending — but not as much as what the crowd had wanted.
The vote by the agency commonly known as "Swiftmud" is likely to mean changes for residents and businesses in Citrus and Hernando counties as they are likely to start seeing efforts to clamp down on excess irrigation and other water uses.
Swiftmud and Florida's other four water districts are setting what are called "minimum flows and levels" for Florida's major waterways. The idea is to figure out how much more those rivers, springs and lakes can be drained for water supply purposes before causing environmental problems.
The law requiring the agencies to set those minimums calls for avoiding "significant harm," but does not define what that means. Swiftmud's experts ran computer models to check how various levels of cutbacks in the flow would affect the rivers as habitat for manatees, fish, birds and other flora and fauna.
Ultimately, they concluded that a 15 percent reduction in the wildlife habitat would constitute "significant harm." Then they calculated how much water could be taken out without hitting that 15 percent mark.
In the Chassahowitzka, that would mean cutting the flow no more than 9 percent, the Swiftmud staff said, and in the Homosassa that would mean cutting the flow no more than 3 percent.
Among the hundreds of people who objected to that proposed limit: Boyd Blihovde, deputy manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.
"If the flows on the Chassahowitzka are reduced by 9 percent it will have a devastating impact on Florida manatees, migratory birds, blue crabs, the American alligator and many more species," Blihovde said.
Former legislator Nancy Argenziano told board members they should aim to do better than what the law requires. " 'Significant harm' is not something we should aspire to," she said.
Many of the people who testified told the board they feared increased pumping of water from the aquifer and increased pollution flowing into the rivers had already damaged them, leading to increased saltiness and changes in the wildlife. Saltwater barnacles are showing up on boats in what used to be the freshwater part of the rivers, for instance.
However, Swiftmud resource management division director Mark Hammond said computer models showed that sea level rise and a long drought had been the real culprits, with groundwater pumping only a minor contributing factor.
"The drawdown is not the culprit of the degraded river?" Swiftmud board member Carlos Beruff asked, sounding dubious.
"That's our belief," Hammond told him.
Ultimately the board struck a compromise, agreeing to a limit on cutting the flow on both the Homosassa and the Chassahowitzka of 3 percent and agreeing to re-evaluate those flow limits in six years. And they told the staff to start working on creating a "water use caution area" for that region, classifying those two counties as an area where water resources are or will become critical in the next 20 years and creating a plan for cutting back on use.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.