POINT OF VIEW SFWMD aquifer rules reveal the agency wears no clothes

The Ag Reserve is an area in Palm Beach County where 17 years ago, the county drew a line around an area that was to be off limits to buildings, cars and pavement for the sake of maintaining farm lands and sensitive environmental areas. Land use boundaries, like the Ag Reserve, are growth management tools a local government uses to ensure the continued development of land is planned and sustainable. One of the several reasons to protect open spaces is to allow for aquifer recharge.

Aquifer recharge occurs over development free spaces when rain water seeps into the ground and ultimately percolates into the aquifer that later becomes our drinking water. When rain falls on pavement, buildings, or compacted ground it does not seep into the ground. Instead, rainfall over developed areas is required, based on the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) flood protection “rules,” to be diverted into man-made catchment areas, and most of the time, flows into man-made canals, then into the inter-coastal, estuaries and ultimately to tide. This diversion of water may meet state flood protection standards, but does not mean that the aquifer will be re-charged to help protect against saltwater intrusion or that the water has had enough time to be cleaned of nutrients.

Addressing Ernie Barnett’s letter published in the July 9 editions of The Palm Beach Post, “Agencies’ rules will protect wetlands,” it may be true that the SFWMD permit issued to GL Homes for its development of the Ag Reserve may, on paper, show no impacts – but what he did not say and likely cannot say, is whether there will be impacts to the aquifer. The reason for that is because the SFWMD does not consider the elimination of aquifer recharge as it permits open spaces for development or how to mitigate for that. This means that developing these last bastions of open spaces, results in more runoff to the estuaries and the coastal areas (to prevent flooding), less re-charge to the aquifer, decreased water quality and more consumption of what remains flowing into our aquifer. This is not sustainable.

Since Gov. Rick Scott’s strong-arm reduction of environmental protections, the water management districts and the state Department of Environmental Protection have been systematically defunded and have replaced managers with biological backgrounds that had long-standing institutional knowledge with engineers and others with little to no institutional knowledge. This type of focused replacement results in a viewpoint that any problem can be solved by pouring more concrete, installation of more weirs, or diversion of water into another man- made lake. While engineering solutions work well for many objectives, we are seeing a failure of concern for the larger environment in south Florida by failing to consider the cumulative impacts that individual projects have on the larger whole of impacts. This holistic protection is being left to the local governments to ensure that open spaces are kept open for the benefit of the greater good and not simply to benefit the financially fueled lobbyists and their clients.

So, maybe Ernie Barnett is technically right that a permit from the SFWMD “certifies” that bad things won’t happen resulting from this one tiny project. However, one tiny project after another chips away at the sustainability of our aquifer and of our state’s overall water quality. It is time we stop compartmentalizing environmental impacts and start considering these impacts holistically. It is imperative that we restore our environmental safety net by allowing the agencies to operate independently and with adequate resources to address cumulative impacts.


Editor’s note: Laura Reynolds is founding and managing member of Conservation Concepts in West Palm Beach.

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