Environment

South Florida water crisis has silver lining: more water for the southern ‘Glades

Video: Water managers begin draining water into Everglades National Park for the first time in decades

Jesse Kennon, owner of Coopertown Airboats Tours, speaks about increased water levels south of Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Record rain this winter has pushed South Florida into emergency mode: with Lake Okeechobee nearly full, water managers
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Jesse Kennon, owner of Coopertown Airboats Tours, speaks about increased water levels south of Tamiami Trail in the Everglades. Record rain this winter has pushed South Florida into emergency mode: with Lake Okeechobee nearly full, water managers

Amid a South Florida water crisis forcing water managers to drain and dump dirty water on both coasts, there may be a drop of good news: water in amounts not seen since the 1960s will flow into the southern Everglades.

This week, water managers began raising the level of a major canal that parallels Tamiami Trial, a critical step in Everglades restoration that was not supposed to happen for at least another year. For the next 90 days, water in the L-29 canal will flow through 10 miles of culverts and, for the first time, under a one-mile bridge along the Trail, down the Shark River Slough and — Everglades National Park and state water managers hope — into Florida Bay where a summer drought led to a massive seagrass die-off.

While it’s just a fraction of what’s ultimately needed, the trickle could give water managers a glimpse of the potential for Everglades restoration.

“It’s a good thing,” said Bob Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at Everglades National Park. “This is something we haven’t seen in decades.”

This is something we haven’t seen in decades.

Bob Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at Everglades National Park

Over the weekend, federal and state officials hammered out an emergency plan to relieve water stacking up in Lake Okeechobee and flooding marshes in three vast water conservation areas to the south. The plan will essentially serve as a drill for a major restoration project by moving water out of one 915-square-mile conservation area just north of the Trail, where still-rising water is now more than a foot above levels typical for the dry season, threatening to flood tribal camps and habitat for a menagerie of wildlife including the Everglades mink, Big Cypress fox squirrel and little blue heron.

With flood control pumps gushing waters into the L-29 canal, levels in the conservation areas could drop in about a month, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds. But whether that helps Lake Okeechobee will depend on how much rain gets delivered as the El Niño winter moves into spring.

There also may be a snag in the silver lining. While the southern Glades desperately needs water during the dry season, El Niño’s soggy presence has left water levels far above normal in the park at a time of year when wading birds depend on shallow water to hunt for fish. Dumping water now is “like sending coals to Newcastle,” said conservationist and bird photographer Charlie Causey, who served on the water management district in the 1990s.

“We got plenty of water. We need water when it’s timely for us,” he said.

Water quality may also become a sticking point. To protect native plants, water entering the park needs to be nearly free of nutrients, which flow from acres of sugarcane fields to the north. The Corps says that the water flowing from the conservation area is cleaner than is required.

But with three more months of pumping ahead, environmentalists and fishing guides worry that prolonged releases could bring pollution into the park and Florida Bay.

There’s no way they can move that amount of water in that time frame and not bring nutrients.

Jesse Kennon, owner of Coopertown Airboat Tours

“There’s no way they can move that amount of water in that time frame and not bring nutrients,” said Jesse Kennon, whose family has operated the Coopertown Airboat Tours along Tamiami Trail since 1945.

On Thursday, Kennon dipped a pole into water next to his airboat to show water already about eight inches above normal. Wading birds that fill the marshes in winter were largely absent, he said, pushed to shallower waters far to the south.

“When that water comes up, this will look like a lake,” he said before spotting a lone snail kite perched on a branch. “This high water is going to make feeding for him very difficult.”

South Florida’s latest water crisis erupted in January when Lake Okeechobee shot up with record rains. To protect the lake’s aging dike, now being repaired, and get the region ready for the upcoming wet season, the Corps began dumping as much water as possible into the St. Lucie and Calooshatchee rivers. But the surge of foul water increases the risk of triggering a repeated problem for both coasts: fish kills and algae blooms.

Already, brown water thick with plant material from run-off has darkened the Gulf Coast, where mayors are calling for the Corps to stop dumping water. Along the St. Lucie River, black water has spread into the Indian River Lagoon, where seagrass beds wilted after releases in 2013.

But with El Niño continuing to fuel rainfall, draining the system has proven difficult. Ever after two weeks of maximum releases, Thursday’s lake level remained exactly where it was two weeks ago, Reynolds said.

“We are at maximum capacity in every place that we store water,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ll get quote, unquote back to normal until after this wet season.”

With high water threatening wildlife in conservation areas popular with hunters, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron said he called Gov. Rick Scott on Feb. 9 and requested an emergency meeting.

Taking “advantage of the infrastructure that’s there” and using the one-mile bridge completed in 2013 but so far unused, was an obvious solution, he said. But convincing opposing sides, including the Miccosukee Tribe and seven property owners who for years have fought with federal agencies over flooding, took some deft negotiating.

“You gotta be a magician,” he said.

On Monday, water managers turned on pumps just east of Coopertown and began raising the canal level, Kennon said, but stopped after water threatened to swamp his docks and knocked loose an airboat on Tuesday. On Thursday, the pumping began again after workers with the South Florida Water Management District constructed temporary ramps on his docks.

Reynolds said that so far the plan is to dump the equivalent of 900 Olympic-size swimming pools a day into the canal until levels are raised a foot to 8.5 feet. After 90 days, the agencies agreed to reconsider the plan. As of Wednesday, state officials said 1.08 billion gallons of water had been moved into the park.

While the water will likely be high at the top of Shark River Slough, how much reaches Florida Bay and its patchwork of basins remains to be seen, Johnson said. Still, he said, the plan will give biologists a chance “to look at real data to see if our predictions match.”

Environmental activists also are anxious to see how the increased water affects wildlife, particularly the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, an endangered bird that requires specific water conditions to survive.

“The timing is important,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The hope is to push the water now and the water levels will go back down and that will make it less wet up north for the wading bird and dry enough down south for the sparrow. But it’s all really uncertain.”

The additional water also could give Kennon a glimpse into the future. He’s already planning where to build boardwalks across parts of his property that will be flooded and construct a retaining wall where water was already creeping upland. On Thursday, even after just a few inches, the Coopertown sign advertising 65 years of airboat rides was a few inches closer to shore.

“Our water storage tank used to go to the Miami River. Now the tank is half gone,” he said. “We don’t have the storage that Mother Nature gave us so we have to figure out a way to manage it. Every time you build a parking lot, you’ve lost storage.”

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