SFWMD urged to send water south under Tamiami Trail

'The Everglades are drowning'

Posted 10/16/23

Is the federal government sacrificing the lives of deer and fur-bearing animals that live in the Central Everglades ...

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SFWMD urged to send water south under Tamiami Trail

'The Everglades are drowning'


Is the federal government sacrificing the lives of deer and fur-bearing animals that live in the Everglades to protect the nesting area of a bird that is no longer there?

At the Oct. 12 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board,  members of the public complained about high water levels in the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) north of the Tamiami Trail.

Water levels in WCA-3A and WCA-3B are more than 1 foot above schedule, flooding out the tree islands.

The Tamiami Trail – a road from Tampa to Miami – bisects the Everglades. The L-28 and L-29 levees block the natural sheetflow of water out of WCA-3. There are some culverts and bridges which can allow water to flow under the road, and more water control structures are under construction, but nine months of the year, some of these water control structures are closed to protect the nesting area of a subpopulation of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.

“We’re flooding out the entire ecosystem and I think it may be beyond repair already,” said Sean McCann. “Ever day the water is up, more tree islands are dying, and the ecology is getting ruined.”

“All of our water conservation areas are above schedule,” said Mike Elfenbein. “The consequences of that are the loss of habitat, the loss of wildlife and upsetting the balance ecologically of the area that we are constantly telling everyone we are spending billions of dollars to restore.

“Conservation area 3 remains closed to public access in the name of protecting wildlife. As we speak, wildlife are being drowned by high water conditions created by improper management of the water control structures. Not to sound like a broken record, but we seem to have this conversation every year. When it’s an issue of discussion, everybody makes it sound as if they are working on a solution, but here we are another year and we’ve not solved the problem,” he continued.

“(Water control structures) 343-A and B are closed in the L-28 levee, the same levee we have a project to build three more structures in to do the same thing the two structures that are closed now could be doing on their own. In two weeks, you’ll close the S-12 A and B (water control structures), which will reduce the amount of water flowing south into the Everglades by about 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). It’s hard to continue to think that we’re asking for more money for projects to solve problems that we already have structures and the ability to solve currently, to protect a bird that we know no longer exits in habitat that we know can’t support it. Please let the water out of 3A,” Elfenbein said.

“Single species management seems to be the bane of the existence of the water levels that’s destroying estuaries all the way south of Lake Okeechobee. We need to get this water down to Florida Bay,” said Don Carlson. “As long as we recognize this Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow as being the defining factor on this water movement, I don’t see how we’re going to fix the issues.  

“We’re drowning tree islands in (WCA) 3-A and 3-B, islands that we are not going to get back. The wildlife is suffering,” Carlson continued. “I am a private stakeholder and areas are shut down that I can no longer access because of these water levels.”

“WCA-3 is over a foot above schedule. We’re drowning tree islands. We’re killing wildlife. We’re making the same mistakes we made in the past,” said Tom VanNote. “I just don’t understand how we can’t learn from our mistakes in the past. The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is gone. There’s only spottings in one of the four habitats. Why do we keep making this mistake for a bird that can fly and find more appropriate places to nest? It can fly. It got moved off of Cape Sable by a hurricane. It can find other territory.”

“Sixty days of inundation kills a tree island,” said Daniel Watson. “If you look all the way back to 1959 – just Google ‘1959 high water’ -- we’ve had over 60 years of research that 60 days of inundation is going to destroy tree islands that we’ve already lost over 40% of in these areas. Water in 3-A is over a foot above schedule and we’re dealing with the sixth year in a row for a high water closure. That not only limits taxpaying shareholders from accessing the area, but you have camp owners who can’t get to their camps that are flooded out. The worst is the fur-bearers and deer, which is an indicator species of the health of any area. They’re stuck up on a levee. And any time you put a bunch of deer up on a levee, you’ve got stress. You’ve got them all eating together. No one has mentioned CDW (Chronic Deer Wasting disease) which has just entered Florida; that’s a big deal. And then you’re going to throw all the deer together on the one little high spot they have left. Not only that, you ring the dinner bell for panthers. You don’t want to end up with the 1982 mercy kills, where 2,000 permits were given out to kill 40% of a 5,500 strong herd, that we’ll never see again. These deer and small animals – raccoons, possums, rabbits – are all drowning out there and you can’t send the water south.

“Billions of dollars are being spent on bridges on the Tamiami Trail,” he said. “The water can go south but Department of the Interior keeps it locked up for the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. That’s a bird, that someone goes out and when they think they hear one, they count that as seven birds. That’s not a joke. They count that as seven birds,” he continued.

“The Miccosukee Tribe has submitted a formal request for lowering the water,” he said. Watson asked the governing board to open the 343 water control structures and keep the S-12s open.

SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett said the governing board could “send a letter to Col. Booth (commander of the USACE Jacksonville district) saying we would like a letter of agreement to temporarily open these structures to address the high water levels.”

“There’s no lack of desire by this agency, the corps or the fish and wildlife service to go to condition-based operations as soon as possible,” said SFWMD Chief Engineer John Mitnik.

He said current levels are not above the “emergency high water line,” and thus would not qualify for an emergency deviation in the release schedule.

He said for USACE to change the water release schedule, they would have to go through the NEEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, which is a lengthy bureaucratic process requiring studies and documentation, reviewed by each agency for approval.

“In an emergency, you take action and do NEEPA documentation afterwards,” he said.

“Outside an emergency, we have to do NEEPA documentation first,” he explained.

“It’s harming my people,” said Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, who phoned into the meeting to comment.

“I am sitting next to the conservation area and looking at the water,” she said. “After 120 days of inundation, you are changing the soil life. You are harming the animals. And the tree islands erode.

“We need relief now, not December and not next year,” she said. “These islands are being harmed. You have 90% animal loss and 75% tree loss. Islands are changing their plant communities because of what man is doing.

“South of the Tamiami Ttrail, man has changed the habitat for a bird that is no longer there,” Osceola added.

Many of the plants that are lost are important to the Miccosukee people, she added.

“You are harming the lives of the Miccosukee People,” she said. “You need to start listening more to the indigenous people. We need something done today.”

“Even seven days of inundation can damage tree islands,” said Elfenbein. He urged SFWMD to accept the new information that the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is no longer in the affected area and the former sparrow habitat should not be preserved at the expense of the wildlife in WCA-3.

“There must be a way of showing an emergency today,” said Governing Board Member Jay Steinle. He noted SFWMD controls some of the water control structures under the trail.

“If the district were to open the structures, it would make a statement,” he said.

Governing Board Member Ron Bergeron said the federal government does not consider it a state of emergency unless it impacts the human population.

“If you have water going into people’s houses, you have a state of emergency,” he said. “All that water is going into somebody else’s house – that’s the wildlife.”

He said they should be able to declare a state of emergency in the environment.

“It upsets the public when we have the infrastructure and we’re shutting it,” said Bergeron.

“When we as man extend that (high water) duration, it’s not a natural event, it’s created,” he said. “How we can sit with the USACE and somehow not shut these gates and work with FDOT (Florida Department of Transporation) and see if we can buy another 30 days.”

“It’s clear to me there is a problem,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Chauncy Goss.

“We’ve got more water coming in. We’ve got less water going out. We can’t just say we can’t do anything,” he continued. “I don’t like the hand we’ve been dealt. We need to figure out a way out of that hand.”

“There’s got to be a way to give us some flexibility,” said Governing Board Member Charlotte Roman.

“We can write a letter. We can bring the Miccosukee Tribe into it,” said Bartlett.

“We’re not trying to change operations,” said Roman. “We want a one-time exception by agreement.”

“The colonel is not trying to be difficult,” said Bergeron. “A dozen times this went to (USACE headquarters in) Atlanta – I think it is serious enough we follow that process.”

“If we’ve done this 12 times, it’s probably broken,” said Goss. “I think it needs to be fixed.”

“We’re shutting gates for a purpose that isn’t even there anymore,” said Bergeron. “Shutting gates to protect something like a ghost, and impacting the whole Central Everglades.”

Bergeron asked if leaving the gates open would have any impact on farmers.

“It would have no impact on farmers,” said Mitnik. “The water would flow into Big Cypress Preserve.

“As staff, I cannot advise you to violate federal law and open those structures,” Mitnik added. “I don’t look good in an orange jumpsuit."

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is an endangered species found in the Everglades. [Photo by Lori Oberhofter, National Park Service]
The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is an endangered species found in the Everglades. [Photo by Lori Oberhofter, National Park Service]
“This board is tired of having its hands tied by a lack of action by the federal government for reasons we don’t understand,” said Goss. “I can’t believe they are going to flood areas and have people’s livelihood hurt for something that doesn’t exist.”

This map shows the area south of Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades Agricultural Area (in white near the top of the map) to Florida Bay, More than 25% of the original EAA is now in public ownership, used for the EAA Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), the Flow Equalization Basin (FEB), the EAA Reservoir (under construction) and the EAA Reservoir STA (ready for planting soon.) The Tamiami Trail (which separates WCA-3 from Everglades National Park, blocks the natural flow of water south.
This map shows the area south of Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades Agricultural Area (in white near the top of the map) to Florida Bay, More than …

Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, flow, south, Tamiami Trail, sparrow