Environment

Corps to reduce Lake O releases but little relief expected for South Florida

Water managers will continue pumping about 1.6 billion gallons of water a day into Everglades National Park to lower levels in a vast conservation area north of the Tamiami Trail, pictured here, that remains about a foot too high.
Water managers will continue pumping about 1.6 billion gallons of water a day into Everglades National Park to lower levels in a vast conservation area north of the Tamiami Trail, pictured here, that remains about a foot too high. Miami Herald Staff

How high is the water in South Florida? Too high for wood storks in Everglades National Park.

While water managers announced they would begin cutting back on flushing water from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts on Friday, South Florida remains soaked despite weeks of mostly blue skies. Water across a 915-square mile reserve north of the Tamiami Trail used to store water is still more than a foot too high. That means pumping huge amounts of water into marshes — about 1.6 billion gallons a day — will likely continue.

And for wading birds normally nesting during the winter dry season, that’s still too much water, even for the swamp’s leggy wood storks.

“They’re having a hard time finding places to land,” said Tylan Dean, the park’s chief biologist. Many more wading birds, he said, “have chosen not to nest in the Everglades this year. It’s not a crisis. It’s just a response.”

The past few weeks also highlights the complexity of balancing water needs in the region. For years, flood control and pollution from farms kept water out of the park, causing a host of environmental problems, from hyper salty water in Florida Bay to drying peat in the Everglades. An Everglades restoration project that began last year was intended to test the amount and timing of water delivered to the park over four years, then the region was hit with record rain. Now that water is moving south, it’s coming at the wrong time.

Now one bad year is significant because of the stress these birds are already under.

Audubon Florida biologist Pete Frezza

“There’s always going to be peaks and valleys, regardless of the mismanagement of water,” said Pete Frezza, an Audubon Florida biologist based in Tavernier. “But now one bad year is significant because of the stress these birds are already under.”

Record rain in January pushed lake levels above 16 feet, threatening the lake’s aging dike and prompting the U.S. Corps of Engineers to begin dumping as much water as possible into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers last month. That move muddied both coasts, turning water black and brown and alarming residents still recovering from a 2013 mass flushing that killed seagrass and triggered toxic algae blooms. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and blamed the Obama administration for not moving fast enough to fix the dike.

On Thursday, operations chief Jim Jeffords said drier weather will now allow the Corps to reduce water being released. On Friday, he expects the amount to drop by about half to the west coast and two-thirds to the east. But he said water managers will continue moving as much water south as possible.

The problem is finding room. The South Florida Water Management District said Thursday that all three water conservation areas south of the lake remain full. Stormwater treatment areas designed to remove pollution from dirty lake water don’t have room either. District officials also worry high water is causing problems for wildlife.

Because of rainfall, district spokesman Randy Smith said it’s impossible to say when levels in the conservation areas will start to fall. The agency has at least another two months to continue pumping under an emergency deal with the Corps. At the end of the 90-day permit, Jeffords said the Corps will look at how the ecosystem has fared and whether pumping can continue.

We still don’t have the capacity to move water well and into the right place.

Tylan Dean, chief of biological resources at Everglades National Park

Normally, this time of year leaves the park dotted with watering holes where alligators and wading birds can find plenty to eat. But with water high, both are likely to have trouble finding food. But that doesn’t mean they won’t adapt, Dean said. Some wading birds are nesting near coasts with lower levels. And snail kites, which for years struggled in dry conditions, are doing better, he said.

“No matter what, it’s a lot of water...in a time when that normally doesn’t happen,” he said. “It shows the limitations of our current system. We still don’t have the capacity to move water well and into the right place.”

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