Environment

Heavy rain, aging flood system leave South Florida farmlands swamped

A tomato field adjacent to the C-111 canal in South Miami-Dade flooded last Saturday as rain soaked the region.
A tomato field adjacent to the C-111 canal in South Miami-Dade flooded last Saturday as rain soaked the region. South Florida Water Management District

After being crippled earlier this year by an outbreak of an exotic fruit fly, South Florida farmers are struggling with a new scourge: flooding.

Heavy rain and the region’s aging flood control system — in one case, a generator had to be hauled out to a remote canal gate — swamped swaths of farmland growing bean, tomato, squash and other winter crops. At least 60 farmers say they lost between 40 and 100 percent of their crops, said county agricultural manager Charles LaPradd.

Even as skies cleared this week, some fields remain underwater despite nonstop pumping. Near one canal, high tides continue to flood fields twice a day.

Saturday morning we had it under control, and then we got hit again. And that’s when we really lost control of the system.

Jeff Kivett, division director for the South Florida Water Management District

“Saturday morning we had it under control, and then we got hit again. And that’s when we really lost control of the system,” South Florida Water Management District operations division director Jeff Kivett told district board members Thursday.

Once they tally their losses, farmers hope to get some relief from federal officials, LaPradd said. Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, said that he also has assessed flooding and will work “with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] on the damage assessment to assist growers as much as possible.” The water district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also are conducting a review to determine what went wrong, said district executive director Pete Antonacci.

For consumers, the price of domestic vegetables this winter will almost certainly go up, said John Alger, a third generation farmer who lost at least 80 acres worth of crops and is still assessing damage to another 1,015 acres.

“That’s good for the guys in Immokalee and Belle Glade,” who also farm winter crops, he said. “Not so good for us.”

$592 millionSales generated by Miami-Dade County farming according to the 2012 census

The county’s more than 80,000 acres of farmland supply much of the winter vegetables east of the Mississippi and, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, amounted to sales of about $592 million. In August, the area was hit by an outbreak of Oriental fruit fly, the largest ever in the state, triggering an 85-mile quarantine that is only now starting to clear up. No new flies have been found in nearly two months, meaning the quarantine could be lifted in February.

“That moves on.” LaPradd said. “And now we move into this.”

In some places, up to 15 inches fell. Water managers are still reviewing data, but suspect the storm could wind up being a once-in-25 years kind of event. The last time the area even came close to getting so much rain was in 2000, Alger said.

With the forecast calling for heavy rain the first week of December, Kivett said the district began emptying water out of canals, down to the lowest levels allowed without endangering wellfields, on Dec. 1. Flood control structures in South Miami-Dade were cranked open the next day and crews were manning pump stations round the clock. On Dec. 3, workers were sent out to clear vegetation from canals. Two gates at the C-111 canal that drain farmland were fully open the next day.

Fields had already started to flood, but it seemed like the amount was manageable, said Sam Accursio, a second-generation farmer and water district board member.

It seemed like the Lord just unloaded all the water he had in heaven and by Saturday afternoon we were in deep trouble.

Sam Accursio, farmer and South Florida Water Management District board member

“Saturday morning I felt a little more confident and said, ‘We’re ahead of this thing now,’ ” he said. “We still had damage, but the ponding wasn’t rising. Then at lunchtime Saturday, it seemed like the Lord just unloaded all the water he had in heaven and by Saturday afternoon we were in deep trouble.”

Accursio lost his entire crop of yellow squash, but estimated total losses at just 40 percent. Other farmers lost everything, LaPradd said. They’re still calculating the financial hit. Draining the region is not as simple as opening flood gates. Water levels are set at certain heights to protect wetlands, critical to restoring habitat ravaged by decades of poorly engineered flood controls, and key to the balance that the water needs in the region between wet and dry seasons.

Aging gates on coastal canals don’t make the job any easier. At high tide in Miami-Dade County, nine coastal gates are closed — six near farms in South Dade — to keep saltwater from rushing back in. That causes stormwater to back up all over the system with only one way out: the S-197 gate on the C-111 that empties into Barnes Sound.

When heavy rain started pounding the region, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the district decided to open the gate. The gate was replaced in recent years, but still operates manually, so the district trucked in a generator to power electric winches and lights for crews working in the dark.

The C-111, a massive canal that was dredged in the 1960s to carry rockets from a defunct rocket plant in South Dade, and then was expanded in the 1980s to protect farms from flooding, has been at the center of a years-long fight between farmers and environmentalists. Big dumps of nutrient-rich runoff have devastated Barnes Sound in the past.

Farmers say water is being kept too high to protect wetlands.

“During Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, there was quite a bit of rain. And that was in a wet time period. Summertime. But it was all gone in less than 48 hours,” LaPradd said.

Water managers say their hands are tied by federal rules that set water levels to protect wetlands critical to the health of Florida Bay, which suffered a massive seagrass die-off this summer after salinity spiked. The Corps and water district are now trying to work out the right amount of water needed in the canal to improve sheet flow to Everglades National Park, but the matter remains contentious. A special work group that formed this summer to sort out the conflict, meets Monday in Homestead.

I would expect it was like trying to deal with a blizzard in July.

Farmer John Alger

“Not to overly defend anyone, but I would expect it was like trying to deal with a blizzard in July,” Alger said. “The water management district can’t win. They go from me being ticked one day to the next day the environmentalists being ticked.”

While farmers wait for fields to drain, they’ll decide which plants to save and which to replant, Alger said. Some plants survived flooding, but won’t necessarily produce good vegetables, he said. Farmers also need to plan for a winter predicted to bring above normal rainfall because of a strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific and expected to last through the spring.

“We’re trying to decide now whether we keep putting money into it,” he said. “We’re already delusional optimists, so we keep going.”

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