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Agency adopts flow level

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Michael D. Bates

For the Riverland News

BROOKSVILLE — About 75 people packed the Southwest Florida Water Management District board chambers Tuesday to protest a proposal to adopt a minimum flow level for the Rainbow River that’s a 5 percent decrease over the present flow rate.

After three hours of public comment, water district board members discussed the matter for almost another hour before voting unanimously to adopt the minimum flow and level (MFL) rate. It is the first time a minimum flow rate has been set for the southwest Marion County river.

That brought a smattering of catcalls and epithets from some in the audience, who loudly filed out of the chambers, upset by their belief that reduced flow will cause further degradation to the river.

“It was a vote for development, not the environment,” said Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, with the Sierra Club.

But water district board members assured them their vote had nothing to do with making it easier for developers to obtain water use permits and resented accusations from several speakers that they were either “bought out” or had ulterior motives.

“I’ll tell you right now, that is an insult,” SWFWMD board member John Henslick told the crowd. “It’s an insult to me personally and to this staff.”

Henslick and his colleagues all agreed that they voted for the 5 percent MFL based on science, research and the results of an independent peer review group finding.

Tuesday’s vote means that BROOKSVILLE — About 75 people packed the Southwest Florida Water Management District board chambers Tuesday to protest a proposal to adopt a minimum flow level for the Rainbow River that’s a 5 percent decrease over the present flow rate.

After three hours of public comment, water district board members discussed the matter for almost another hour before voting unanimously to adopt the minimum flow and level (MFL) rate. It is the first time a minimum flow rate has been set for the southwest Marion County river.

That brought a smattering of catcalls and epithets from some in the audience, who loudly filed out of the chambers, upset by their belief that reduced flow will cause further degradation to the river.

“It was a vote for development, not the environment,” said Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, with the Sierra Club.

But water district board members assured them their vote had nothing to do with making it easier for developers to obtain water use permits and resented accusations from several speakers that they were either “bought out” or had ulterior motives.

“I’ll tell you right now, that is an insult,” SWFWMD board member John Henslick told the crowd. “It’s an insult to me personally and to this staff.”

Henslick and his colleagues all agreed that they voted for the 5 percent MFL based on science, research and the results of an independent peer review group finding.

Tuesday’s vote means that drawdowns of the river up to 5 percent for well withdrawals will be allowed, That’s the maximum amount of drawdown that can occur before more than 15 percent of the habitat is damaged or destroyed.

The vote included a re-evaluation of the MFL in 10 years but staff stressed that it conducts regular reviews of the river and can adjust flow levels any time.

Many of the MFL opponents gathered Tuesday were members of environmental groups and others were long-time residents who grew up on the Rainbow River. Their complaints were similar: a 5 percent flow reduction will further degrade a river that is already muck-covered and full of algae due to elevated nitrate levels.

A few people held up signs in the board room, saying such things as “Water is Life.”

Louise Kenny of Dunnellon said the Rainbow River is the heart and soul of the community and is frequented by tourists from all over the nation.

“It’s very important to us economically,” Kenny said.

Jim Tatum disagreed with the water district’s data that shows a 5 percent minimum flow would not have a deleterious effect on the river.

“We all know it’s not true,” Tatum said, without giving specifics. “(Just) leave it alone.”

Robert Knight, president of Florida Springs Institute, urged board members to delay action until they saw first-hand how bad the river has become.

“Work with us,” he said. “Go out and see it for yourselves.”

Karen Garren of Gainesville said she doesn’t trust the water district’s data.

“Your job is not to find cheap water for development to continue,” she said.

But in the end, the board opted to go with the advice of staff.

“The science has to dictate our policy,” said board member Kelly Rice. “We are all concerned about our environment.”

Rice said he understood and appreciated the passion of the river supporters and said, if he lived there, he would probably be sitting in the audience and appealing to the board to leave it alone.

But not establishing an MFL, the board said, is not an option. The district is mandated by the state to set MFLs for the water bodies in their districts.

Mark Hammond, director of the water district’s Resource Management Division, said the MFL establishes a science-based benchmark that ensures controlled development.

“It adds a level of protection that wasn’t there before,” Hammond said.

Ron Basso, chief hydrogeologist, said groundwater withdrawals only account for 1-2 percent of the reduced water level of the river. The lack of rain has caused the biggest deficit, he said.