WEST PALM BEACH — The Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) south of Lake Okeechobee and north of the Tamiami Trail closed to public access on Friday, Aug. 14, due to high water levels in the WCAs. At the Aug. 13 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers Florida explained, “The water is too high. The animals are up on the levees. They are under stress.
“Why is the water not flowing south under the Tamiami Trail and draining these WCAs?” he asked. “I know there is some water going south, but obviously the amount is not enough.
“Every year we seem to have this problem with the WCAs filling up,” he said.
“We’ve been in this Ground Hog Day scenario for two decades,” said Gene Duncan of the Miccosukee Tribe. Water backs up in the WCAs because they can’t move enough water under the Tamiami Trail.
Duncan said when the SFWMD Governing Board took office more than a year ago, he spoke to them about the issue of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the lack of water flowing under the Tamiami Trail during nine months of the year. He said at the last SFWMD meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about the sparrow, so he knows they are aware of the issues.
“What baffles me is why you haven’t sought the governor’s involvement,” he said.
SFWMD Governing Board member Ron Bergeron said it is important to be able to move water south for the sake of all of the wildlife in the Everglades.
“All of the Central Everglades is above schedule, dramatically,” he said.
Rainfall has been about average for August so far, said SFWMD Chief District Engineer John Mitnik.
He said in July most of the rain was along the east coast. The district is about 5 inches above the rainfall average since May, he added.
The water in the WCAs is from rainfall south of Lake Okeechobee. Little lake water has flowed south this rainy season.
Hurricane Isaias did not bring a lot of rain to the district, he said. “For the most part, for the district it was a relatively non-event from a rain perspective,” he explained. He said Lake Kissimmee was drawn down in anticipation of the hurricane, but it is rising back up.
Lake Okeechobee has risen about a foot in the past month. Lake levels are expected to continue to rise.
With the rising lake levels, the chance that water will be released to the coastal estuaries increases.
No water has been released to the St. Lucie since March 2019. Mitnik said some water from the C-44 Canal was allowed to flow through the St. Lucie Lock in anticipation of the hurricane, but the Port Mayaca Lock was closed at that time.
The Francis S. Taylor, Rotenberger and Holey Land wildlife management areas have been closed due to high water levels. Overall, WCA-3 is about 0.8 feet above regulation schedule, he said.
He said the culverts under the Tamiami Trail are open and all of the S-12 water control structures are open.
Mitnik said about 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) is moving out of WCA-3. The vast majority of that is moving south into Everglades National Park, he explained.
In August the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will put the new combined operating plan into operation. One significant change is to the S-344 structure, which will be able to operated year-round. Currently that structure is subject to closures to protect the nesting grounds of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, Mitnik explained.
“Overall so far this wet season, just over 850,000 acre-feet has flowed into Lake Okeechobee,” he continued. Over half of that has been in the past 30 days, which resulted in a lake level rise of about 1 foot.
He said over 250,000 acre-feet has been discharged through the Caloosahatchee Estuary, with most of that water coming from the basin itself and only 48,400 acre-feet coming from Lake Okeechobee. On the upper east coast, about 200,000 acre-feet of water has been discharged to the St. Lucie Estuary — none of that flow was from Lake Okeechobee.
To the south, only about 77,400 acre-feet of water have flowed south from the lake during the current wet season. Most of the water now in the WCAs is from rainfall that fell south of the lake.
At the bottom end of the system, with all of the structures under the Tamiami Trail open, about 4,000 cfs of water is moving to Everglades National Park.
He said there are five canals that run through the Central Everglades to the southern east coast, but use of these canals is prioritized for flood control in the urban areas on the east coast.
“All of the Central Everglades is over schedule,” said Bergeron. He suggested they start releasing water out of the five canals that go to the east coast to provide some capacity in the WCAs and to give the wildlife in those areas some immediate relief.
He said there is some help on the horizon. Bergeron said 3.6 miles of raised bridging on the Tamiami Trail have been built and the contracts have been let for additional work to move water under that road. “Raising the road, we should be able to have the natural amount of water flowing,” he said.