January 21, 2014

Audubon officials encouraged by early Everglades restoration results

Water flow and plant life show strong increases only a year into one of the early Everglades infrastructure projects.

Audubon Florida director of research Jerry Lorenz was hopeful when federal and state officials broke ground in 2011 on the first major Everglades restoration infrastructure project aimed at delivering more fresh water to the parched Glades and Florida Bay.

The C-111 Spreader Canal Western Component — a network of pumps, levees, canals, and wetlands constructed near the Homestead entrance to Everglades National Park — was designed to reverse the damage done by the C-111 canal, dug in the 1960s to transport rockets from the Aero-Jet plant in South Miami-Dade to Biscayne Bay and north to Cape Canaveral. The canal diverted fresh water that once flowed into Taylor Slough and then to Florida Bay, and instead sent it east to Barnes Sound. The result was the Glades was too dry and Florida Bay too salty, creating ripples of damage to fish, birds, and other wildlife.

But in its first year of operation, the new project is exceeding Lorenz’s expectations. He says underwater plants, which provide food and shelter for creatures in Florida Bay, now cover five times the area they covered in 2008. And freshwater flows into Taylor Slough — the lifeblood of Florida Bay — are twice what they were five years ago.

“I really expected very little for the first year,” Lorenz said. “We’re not going to call it a victory just yet. But this project is really, really promising. I didn’t expect it this soon.”

Lorenz and Audubon colleague Tabitha Cale say they hope the positive progress continues and will keep collecting data from study sites in the region.

The biggest benchmark of restoration success for the Audubon scientists would be a boost in populations of roseate spoonbills in the Everglades. Considered by Lorenz “the canary in the coal mine,” the pink birds that scoop up minnows and crabs with their utensil-like bills are sensitive indicators of the region’s ecological health.

“They tell us something about the entire ecosystem,” Lorenz said. “They tell us how snook, trout, redfish, and crocodiles are doing in Florida Bay.”

In the late ’70s, Audubon scientists counted 1,200 nesting pairs of spoonbills in Florida Bay. Three years ago, there were fewer than 200. The most-recent count shows between 350 and 400. As bay waters become fresher, populations of prey are expected to increase and so should the numbers of the birds that eat them.

Lorenz says he hopes the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will keep the positive momentum going by building the eastern phase of the C-111 spreader project, which would enhance the delivery of fresh water under the new, one-mile Tamiami Trail bridge. Audubon and other Everglades advocates also are pushing for construction of an additional 5½ miles of bridging, along with several other projects.

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