Emergency Action Sends Water South- Trial Run of Everglades Restoration

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    Efforts on the part of local leaders, conservationists and those losing business because of the torrent of dark, fertilizer-polluted water pouring into our back bay and estuaries paid off this week when the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) announced plans to – finally – begin sending water south.

    Right now, the plan is a temporary one, but what it represents is even better news – a trial run of the first actual piece of Everglades restoration.

    “To relieve flooding and dire conditions impacting Everglades wildlife, the District today opened water control gates to move water out of Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3),” said a press release issued by the District on Monday. “Maximizing gate openings at the S-333 structure along the Tamiami Trail will allow about 10,000 gallons of clean water a second to flow south from the WCA, through the L-29 Canal (which runs along the eastern Tamiami Trail) into Northeast Shark River Slough in Everglades National Park.”

    The District’s decision came about after the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) asked the Army Corps of Engineers to ease regulatory restrictions to make this happen as quickly as possible. According to the District, Governor Rick Scott also encouraged the Corps to take action.

    We spoke with Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation Natural Resources Director Rae Ann Wessel, who told us that it was FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron who actually got the ball rolling.

    “In 2013, Ron went out and took videos of the wildlife affected by the water, but this year he met with the property owners who will be affected by this and got them to agree to a ‘flowage agreement’ – that’s what made this all possible.”

    Last Friday, the FWC sent out a letter stating its concerns.

    “Immediate action is necessary to deviate from permitted water management practices in order to move significant volumes of flood water out of Water Conservation Areas, and subsequently provide opportunities to move more water south out of Lake Okeechobee relieving pressure on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries,” the letter reads.

    “It’s a very serious condition,” said Bergeron, who spent several days meeting with various agencies and Governor Scott. “I’ve never seen this kind of water in the dry season in my life.”

    The District says another big reason those concerns reached the governor’s ears is because of flooding conditions in the WCA, – which spans Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

    “The WCA has been inundated with record rainfall, including the wettest November through January (first half of the dry season) on record since recordkeeping began in 1932 – including 6-8 inches of rain that fell directly over the WCA during one 24-hour period last month,” said Monday’s press release.

    “This caused the WCA to rise to its highest level since 1994. At this extreme high level, wildlife loses critical food sources and safe habitat and cannot survive prolonged flooding conditions.”

    What all of this means, according to Wessel, is that conditions were ripe for a deviation from the Corps’ normal Water Control Plan – a deviation allowing for a trial run of the Modified Water Delivery Schedule – called MOD Waters – a plan that has been in the works for decades.

    “Basically, what they’re doing is pulling the plug at the bottom of the system,” Wessel explained. “This is a trial run of the first piece of Everglades Restoration. They are raising water levels in the L-29 Canal by one foot, which allows them to get more water out of WCA-3. Since the eastern section of the Tamiami Trail was recently raised, that water can now flow under it and into the Everglades to Florida Bay – where it is desperately needed. We had to have that road elevated, and we had to have a willingness to go for an emergency order.”

    While some water is now flowing south, Wessel says not to expect to see any difference in local water conditions anytime soon.

    “We are so backlogged with water that it will take weeks – and that’s if it doesn’t rain – before the water clears,” she said. “But in a future scenario where Everglades restoration is complete, we wouldn’t have any backlog to begin with. The big solution is still to have a lot more storage capacity below the lake and along the Caloosahatchee River watershed, but this is a big step in the right direction.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg