What really harms Florida Bay

Pair of ibis take wing along a canal in the Everglades. A restoration plan approved by Congress aims to keep the River of Grass healthy.
Pair of ibis take wing along a canal in the Everglades. A restoration plan approved by Congress aims to keep the River of Grass healthy. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Sam Accursio of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board wrote an opinion piece late last month that pointed the finger at a small, endangered bird as the major impediment to efforts to protect Florida Bay. It’s not.

The problem is the same one we have been dealing with for decades: the need, in South Florida, to “get the water right” in terms of quantity, quality, timing, and distribution. And the solution is also the same one we’ve had for decades: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP.

Accursio acknowledges that what we need are “[m]ore comprehensive, forward-looking strategies [to] assure better outcomes for our environment, especially in water management.” What he fails to mention is that we already have the forward-looking strategy in CERP. And his prescription for solving what went wrong for Florida Bay during last year’s drought ignores CERP.

His solution: instead of moving the water that came with the massive rains that followed last year’s drought through the historic Everglades flow-way (through Northeast Shark River Slough, and down into Florida Bay, as CERP directs) he suggests flooding the westernmost habitat of the highly endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. This “solution” would put water on a path that, in addition to risking the extinction of a species that makes its only home in the Everglades ecosystem, also fails to get the water where it is needed in central Florida Bay.

There is another path. When water managers at the state and federal level, with the support of environmental advocates, agreed in February to an emergency deviation to current water management operations, it was in large part to jump-start some long-stalled portions of CERP. After talking to area landowners and to the Department of Transportation, they relaxed the upper limit of the water level in the canal that runs alongside Tamiami Trail.

This enabled more water to flow east and then south under the Tamiami Trail bridge, allowing some relief from the extreme high water levels in the Water Conservation Areas to the north. It also put more, much needed, water in the historic Everglades flow-way leading to Florida Bay. And it did all of this without water quality problems or increased flooding on the residential or agricultural lands that abut Everglades National Park to the east.

The fact that these emergency measures appear to be working well thus far is a testament to the investments that the state and federal governments have made over the past decade in key CERP projects that allow for more water to flow east and south.

This is how water flowed historically and must again if we are to avoid the myriad environmental crises we have seen in South Florida from massive discharges to estuaries, flooded hunting grounds, and seagrass die-offs in Florida Bay.

Continuing this work — moving ahead with critical projects, especially those in the central Everglades that allow more water to be stored, cleaned, and moved slowly south at the right times and in the right places — is the only effective way to help Florida Bay. And it has the added benefit of giving relief to the northern estuary communities, restoring central Everglades habitat, and protecting the endangered and threatened species that depend on a healthy Everglades for their survival and recovery.

CERP is the comprehensive, forward-looking strategy that we designed as a community decades ago. This detailed plan was developed over the course of the 1990s with extensive input from state and federal scientists and the public at large. It was approved by Congress in December 2000 as the roadmap for restoring and protecting the ecosystems that stretch from north of Lake Okeechobee, out into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, through the Water Conservation Areas, all the way to Florida and Biscayne Bays, and into Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Solving our current problems requires that we do all we can to expedite implementation of those portions of the plan that can be expedited, as well as push for funding and support for critical CERP projects that remain tied up in the design stages. We have the path forward; our challenge is how quickly we can implement it.

S. Ansley Samson is an attorney with the Everglades Law Center.