Gov. Rick Scott asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday to interrupt tests on a critical Everglades restoration project to make way for water stacking up in Lake Okeechobee.
Water managers last week began releasing as much water as possible into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers after the region, fueled by this winter’s El Niño, experienced the wettest January on record and lake levels shot up. The releases quickly drew protests from environmentalists and residents on both coasts worried about a repeat of widespread fish kills and algae outbreaks that followed such massive dumps of water in 1998 and 2013.
In a letter to Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy, Scott asked for “immediate action” to stop the releases and make room for water in a 915-square mile conservation area north of the Tamiami Trail. Those marsh lands also have already been heavily flooded by rains.
“The wildlife in the Water Conservation Area cannot sustain prolonged flooding and the economies that rely on the estuaries need immediate relief,” Scott wrote in asking that more water be moved through the L-29 canal near the Tamiami Trail and into Everglades National Park down the Shark River Slough.
But moving the water is not so easy. Everglades restoration hinges on getting water into the park and out to Florida Bay — but polluted water or too much at the wrong time can do environmental damage or raise flood risks to adjacent communities. The Corps is currently in the midst of a two-year test to determine the effects of incrementally raising water in the canal. Scott wants the level raised a entire foot — a level the Corps wasn’t going to test for another two years, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, deputy district commander for South Florida, said in a press briefing.
“This is an extreme weather situation that we’re in and I sympathize with the impacts people are having on both coasts as well as in our agricultural areas and down to Florida Bay,” Reynolds said. “It’s really challenging.”
The recent water woes highlight just how tricky managing water in the state has become. Over the summer, Florida Bay wilted during a regional drought that, coupled with decades of flood control, triggered fog of yellow sulfur and acres of dead seagrass. Last week, black and yellow grass covered much of Whipray Basin.
When this winter’s El Niño struck, heavy rains flooded Miami-Dade farm fields, angering farmers who have long complained that water managers have kept groundwater too high and forcing Zoo Miami to close for nearly a week.
With even more rain last month, Reynolds said three water conservation areas that hold regional water and excess water from the lake are full. Water was continuing to rise Thursday in the area just north of the Trail.
Environmentalists, who have long criticized Scott for sharp cuts to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and more recently for a broad water policy law that relaxes regulations on water use, quickly mocked his call for protecting wildlife.
“The nasty, polluted water that’s now killing fish and other marine life on the Southeast and Southwest coasts is a direct result of the state’s incredibly weak policies,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “Make no mistake: These policies were carefully crafted by big-bucks agricultural lobbyists and enacted by their friends in power.”