New Glades rules protect sparrow, might lead to soggy hunting grounds

Following a wet winter, the number of endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow nests plummeted to among the lowest on record. To protect the bird, less water will be moved into western nesting grounds while more water is moved east into Shark River Slough.
Following a wet winter, the number of endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow nests plummeted to among the lowest on record. To protect the bird, less water will be moved into western nesting grounds while more water is moved east into Shark River Slough. Miami Herald Staff

Facing one of the worst nesting years on record, federal wildlife and water managers Friday announced new measures to protect the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and hasten Everglades restoration.

Only one problem: the changes could also lead to more flooding on conservation land popular with hunters.

Under the new guidelines, the 915-square-mile area just north of the Tamiami Trail could hold more water during wet years, like the one that just left the state saturated, caused the number of sparrow nests to plummet and led to toxic algae blooms along the Treasure Coast.

Water would still be released to provide flood protection, said Eric Summa, chief of planning and environmental policy for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville. But if water remains high at the end of the wet season, changes could mean as much as 4.4 more inches of water in what’s known as Water Conservation Area 3 to protect the sparrow in the western Everglades, a historically dry area that was flooded when marshes were drained.

The plan also speeds up the schedule for moving more water down the L-29 canal into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay — which suffered a massive summer seagrass die-off — as federal regulators try to strike a balance between restoration and conservation.

In the joint announcement, the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the changes were made to ensure the Corps complies with the Endangered Species Act as it alters water flows during restoration work. The agencies worked out the measures with partners including the South Florida Water Management District, Summa said.

But district officials, who have regularly complained about sparrow rules impeding water management, said Friday they were not consulted.

“For them to say we were part of the process other than paying us for work that needed to be done is absolutely false,” said SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith. The district performed modeling after being paid less than $150,000, but “the claim of collaboration is absolutely false,” he reiterated.

In recent months, as the stinky and chunky green algae spread across the Treasure Coast following the release of polluted water from a swollen Lake Okeechobee, tension between the agencies rose. This month, district chief Pete Antonacci called the federal wildlife agency incompetent, “tin-eared bureaucrats” over water rules in the Kissimmee river basin that protect endangered snail kites. District governing board manager Jim Moran also regularly criticizes rules that prohibit releasing water into the western Everglades to protect two of the six remaining sparrow populations.

The two governments have also been struggling to get more water to Florida Bay, where the seagrass die-off covers at least 50,000 acres and has raised fears that an algae bloom may follow. In the late 1980s, a similar die-off preceded a bloom that caused the bay to collapse.

With this winter’s record rain, the number of sparrow nests plunged. Sparrows live in rocky grass prairies that regularly flood, foraging for food in grasses during the dry season. When the breeding season begins in April, which also coincides with South Florida’s rainy season, they build nests just above the water. Too much water can flood the nests, which are also used as a measure of whether Everglades restoration efforts are working and mirror historic water flow.

This year, an early count showed just 2,400 nests, FWS Program Supervisor Bob Progulske said Friday. That’s down from from about 3,200 nests last year and a high of 6,600 in 1981.

The new rules aim to fix that but also help federal efforts to speed up Everglades restoration by allowing more water into the L-29 canal that runs along the Tamiami Canal and empties water into Everglades National Park.

To deal with heavy winter flooding, this spring state officials obtained permission to temporarily raise water in the canal. The new rules make the change permanent, with levels raised from 7.5 feet to 7.8 feet by March 2017 and to 8.5 feet by March 2018, said FWS State Supervisor Larry Williams.

The state’s two largest environmental groups, the Everglades Foundation and Florida Audubon, praised the new measures.

“Water mismanagement is the root cause of the algae blooms and seagrass die-offs, and has driven the Cape Sable seaside sparrow to the brink of extinction,” Everglades Foundation Vice President Tom Van Lent said in a statement. “The solution is to accelerate restoration projects.”

Smith said state water managers district are still reviewing the measures to “for how it will affect operations.”

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