After record rain sent water levels soaring across farmland south of Lake Okeechobee and water conservation areas from Palm Beach to Broward counties last month, South Florida water managers raced to flush the peninsula, pumping billions of gallons out to sea and into Biscayne Bay, and opening floodgates normally closed to protect endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrows.
Within three days, what remained dry in sparrow nesting grounds was under water. Manatee Bay, north of the Overseas Highway, turned nearly fresh — salinity this week remained a third of what it should be. And in the Everglades, Taylor River contained more saltwater than fresh.
“They’re just not putting it in the right places. They’re dumping it,” said Audubon Florida’s Research director Jerry Lorenz. “I recognize the need for emergency action with as much rain as we got. I just think it could have done better than just dumping it.”
Never miss a local story.
The struggle to balance flood control and protect the environment in South Florida is nothing new. Two summers ago, a prolonged drought triggered a seagrass die-off that spread across 62 square miles in Florida Bay. By winter, unseasonal rain left dozens of Miami-Dade County farmers with ruined winter crops. The following summer, high lake water threatening its aging dike led to massive releases that coated much of the Treasure Coast with smelly, thick algae.
This year once again revealed the high environmental costs of flood control. The water that swamped sparrow nests in prairie grasses inches from the ground provided just a half inch of relief in the water conservation area, wildlife officials said. And while the South Florida Water Management District has taken steps to increase water into Everglades National Park and down to Florida Bay, much of it still gets routed around marshes and into Biscayne Bay.
But over the coming months, that could change when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins testing two decades-old projects nearing completion. While they play only a small part in the overall effort to repair Florida’s ailing Everglades, they provide a critical link for the parched southern end.
“When everything is built out, we feel like we’ll be able to have a set of operational criteria that is robust enough to handle the normal range of conditions that mother nature can throw at us,” said Senior Hydraulic Engineer Dan Crawford.
The projects — overhauling the massive C-111 canal in the Southern Everglades and determining how water will move below the Tamiami Trail — have been in the works even before the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project was approved in 2000, but got mired in debate over flood control and environmental protection.
With work to prevent water from leaking east into South Miami-Dade farmlands and rural neighborhoods nearly done, the Corps says it can begin raising water in the canal that runs along the Trail and down into the park this fall by a half inch. The water will flow into the C-111, which cut off water Taylor Slough and the eastern side of the park when it was dredged in the 1960s to barge rocket engines north. Last year, the Corps began moving more water into Shark River Slough at the north end of marshes.
“That’s the direction we should be going,” said Everglades Foundation senior scientist Tom Van Lent. “The question is does that mean they don’t have to put it where it doesn’t belong, on top of the sparrow. The risk is they have to do both.”
Corps officials say testing the system through next spring should tell them how well it works, and also provide more freedom to put water where it’s needed.
“We’re maximizing environmental benefits we can achieve at any point in time but also learning how the system responds so we can evaluate that in real time,” Crawford said.
But there’s no guarantee sparrows won’t be flooded or water dumped if a freakish amount of rain, or hurricane or tropical storm, swamps South Florida.
June’s early rain by any measure was historic. Colliding weather systems dumped more in a single week than the region normally gets for the entire month. Rainfall across sugar and farm fields below the lake was more than 200 percent of its average in June. Conservation areas were even higher.
To drain the farm fields and prevent flooding in western Broward County, water managers began emptying water conservation areas in Palm Beach and Broward counties in canals that dumped off the coast. Down south, they moved water offshore and into the park across sparrow nesting grounds.
That set up another round of fighting over environmental concerns. The district in the last two years has become increasingly hostile to federal rules, with outgoing director Pete Antonacci repeatedly battling the Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over environmental protections that impeded pump operations.
The district has been particularly critical over protections for the sparrow, which nests only in Everglades National Park and prevents draining the conservation area to the north into western nesting grounds. Deriding protections as “single species management” at the cost of restoration, they’ve repeatedly blamed the sparrow over the decades for standing in the way of restoration and incorrectly claimed the population nesting in western prairies was blown north by a hurricane off its historic nesting grounds at Cape Sable.
“It’s an idea close to the lunatic fringe,” Stuart Pimm, a Duke University conservation ecologist who specializes in extinction, wrote in an email.
The suggestion also “diverts from the inconvenient truth that the Corps and the District have massively harmed the natural vegetation of the southern Everglades by making the water flow in the wrong place at the wrong time of year.”
No evidence exists to support the theory that a hurricane shifted sparrow nesting grounds, added Larry Williams, the Service’s Florida field supervisor.
“The fact is nobody looked for the birds in these northern areas until the 1970s and 1980s,” he said.
Last year when heavy winter rain flooded conservation areas, the Service asked the Corps to keep the gates protecting western marshes closed. That provided enough time for the birds, which nest between November and July, to successfully hatch their young. This past dry winter also led to another good year, Williams said.
Wildlife managers are working to expand the bird’s nine active nesting grounds to allow flexibility as restoration work is completed and more water flows into the park, said Miles Meyer, the agency’s Everglades supervisor. Two new areas were added to the western Everglades. One is also being added near Shark River Slough as more water enters the park, he said.
“We’re trying to adjust for the restoration that is going to happen and make sure [it] happens in a timely manner,” he said. We don’t want restoration to keep lingering on.”
But district officials say the high water left them with little choice, even if pumping during the first two weeks of June lowered water in the conservation area by just 1.1 inches.
“We had dangerous high levels, and we continue to, and quite frankly there weren’t that many options,” said district spokesman Randy Smith. “Do you place all your emphasis on one species or do you look at the 60 others in the water conservation areas? It’s a horrible trade-off.”
Over the last year, the district has taken steps to get more water south through Taylor Slough in a project that targeted increasing flows to Florida Bay. It also threw open pumps allowing water to move through a newly completed spreader canal that sends water into the slough last month, although one of the pumps was out of operation the first week.
However the releases have raised another concern: water meeting the legal requirement for phosphorus of 10 parts per billion might still shock the ecosystem that thrives on even lower levels. The district has hired Florida International University scientists to monitor potential damage.
“As long as the construction will be done and the Corps says it will be done, we’ll be in a better position to handle that water and move more off to the west,” said the district’s chief engineer, John Mitnik.
But without added storage, water can only be moved into the bay when the region is already wet and must be dumped when conditions become too wet. Lawmakers this year approved speeding up a new 14,000 acre reservoir south of the lake, but the project is likely years from completion.
“We need to have more storage in place so you don’t just transfer enormous quantities of water for flood control of the Everglades Agricultural Area and mainline it into the Everglades,” Van Lent said.
In the meantime, the C-111 work is slated for completion before the next rainy season, a welcome sign. Even if South Florida can’t dodge more record-breaking rain, there’s hope water managers can at least slow the flood control roller coaster that over the last two years battered the environment. Last week, seven environmental groups fearful that summer’s seasonal rains could hold up work if the district needs to drain water south wrote the Corps and district urging them to keep the area dry.
“The construction crews need dry conditions...so they can finish this year,” said Cara Capp, Everglades restoration program supervisor for the National Parks Conservation Association. “If we can get to next year and have high water, then maybe we won’t have to pit the water conservation areas against the sparrow again.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich