At a recent meeting of Highlands County Indivisible (HCFL), Dr. Paul Gray, Science Coordinator for Everglades Restoration at Audubon of Florida, discussed projects that state and federal agencies are undertaking to increase the supply and quality of water in Central and South Florida and to meet restoration goals in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.

Also speaking was Dustin Angell, Education Director at Archbold Biological Station, who discussed innovative solutions that Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch has adopted to address concerns about the flow of nutrient-rich water on cattle ranches.

The Greater Everglades Ecosystem is the largest subtropical wetland in North America. It includes (from north to south) four watersheds: the Kissimmee Basin and the upper Chain of Lakes near Orlando which forms the headwaters of the Everglades; Lake Okeechobee, the shallow but largest freshwater lake in the southeastern U.S., which comprises 730 square miles; the Everglades, where restoration projects are underway; and South Florida’s coastal systems.

South Florida Water Management District was formed in 1972 and is responsible for developing 20-year Regional Water Supply Plans, monitoring and assessing water quality, constructing, operating and maintaining flood protection structures, and implementing minimum water flows and water level programs.

Gray began his presentation by discussing some of the problems that exist in the Everglades ecosystem today. He said that SFWMD is having difficulty meeting all the clean water supply needs of users, especially in Southeast Florida. That’s because the Biscayne Aquifer is replenished by the Everglades and is not getting a sufficient supply of freshwater to sustain it.

The water supply is further threatened by the intrusion of saltwater into the aquifer due to sea level rise, a threat which could be reduced were more freshwater available.

“The Biscayne Aquifer supplies drinking water to one in three Floridians or 8.1 million people. In the future, more freshwater must be directed south to prevent a crisis,” Gray said.

Lake Okeechobee can hold at its capacity 1 trillion gallons of water but normally holds much less, since the water level is generally maintained between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level. Historically, when water levels are very high, excess water has been channeled east and west to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to insure that Lake Okeechobee’s aging Herbert Hoover Dike does not break and that catastrophic flooding does not occur. The dike, which has experienced leaks and cracks and been patched in the past, is currently being refurbished at a cost of $1.8 billion.

In 2018, the year after Hurricane Irma delivered heavy inflows to the Lake, a total of 20+ miles of Lake Okeechobee’s 35 mile-long, phosphorus-laden waters developed intense algae blooms. The water was drained to both coasts, killing fish and wildlife, hurting the recreation and tourism industries, and negatively impacting the health of humans for many months.

Gray said that the ecosystem looked very different before humans set foot on the Everglades. Water would flow slowly with no interruptions through the meandering Kissimmee River, across flat and shallow Lake Okeechobee, and over the expansive peninsula into pristine Florida Bay. The Everglades would filter and cleanse the water and would capture and absorb potential floodwater.

When large-scale drainage began in the 1880s, it was decided that this “swampland” could have tremendous economic value if developed for agricultural, residential, and commercial uses, without anyone understanding the water management value of wetlands. So wetlands were drained and filled, and canals, roads, and buildings were built.

In the 1940s, a multi-year drought followed by severe flooding and hurricanes led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take the next 20 years to build a massive flood control system that stretched from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay. It led to the draining of one-half of the Everglades and to explosive urban growth in South Florida.

The Kissimmee River was also channelized by cutting and dredging a 30-foot deep straightway through the river’s meanders. “It destroyed much of the floodplain-dependent ecosystem,” Gray said.

Phosphorus laden fertilizer from agricultural and stormwater runoff has caused major pollution of the water in Lake Okeechobee since the 1960s. Dairy farms and cattle ranches north and west of Lake Okeechobee are responsible in part. The sugar industry and farmers growing winter vegetables in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of the Lake, are also major contributors.

Gray outlined some steps that SFWMD is taking to capture, clean, and store the water in the Everglades Ecosystem. First is the construction of huge storage reservoirs at a cost of more than $1 billion each. The reservoirs will move more fresh water south and mean fewer discharges to the east and west. “Many more of these reservoirs need to be built north, south, east, and west,” Gray said.

Second is the construction of stormwater treatment areas, wetlands which are used to clean the water and remove phosphorus before the water is discharged into the Everglades.

Third is the establishment of Best Management Practices which farmers are being asked to implement to reduce phosphorus before it leaves the farm. Unfortunately, enforcing the BMPs is difficult because of a shortage of funding and staff.

Gray also would like to see farmers do more to reclaim the water on their land. He suggests providing the farmers with incentives by paying them.

Restoration of 44 miles of the Kissimmee River’s historic meandering channel is also underway. That in turn has brought back the birds and wildlife. Begun in 1999, the project is projected to be completed in 2020.

“We’re taking some important steps to avert a water crisis and restore the Everglades,” Gray said. “But we need to have a greater sense of urgency and to move faster. Whatever we undertake will be expensive, but that’s the price we have to pay.”

Gray is pleased that Governor DeSantis has made addressing water problems a priority. He’s also glad that the Legislature continues to appropriate funds for Everglades Restoration. He hopes that some of the water quality bills that did not pass the Legislature this session will be passed next year.

Indivisible’s second speaker was Dustin Angell, Director of Education, Archbold Biological Station. Angell explained that Buck Island Ranch, which was recently bought by Archbold, is one of 11 ranches participating in a program called the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services program, part of the SFWMD’s Dispersed Water Management Program.

Research conducted by Archbold Biological Station was pivotal in demonstrating the benefits of this program.

The program pays ranchers to hold rainfall on their ranches above and beyond normal best management practices during the wet season. Water is held on ranches with simple structures such as culverts with wooden risers. The riser board structures decrease surface flow leaving the ranch and increase subsurface flow resulting in substantially slower flow that gradually heads towards Lake Okeechobee, the Estuaries, and the Everglades.

“Ranches have a lot of ditches and wetlands, so installing risers is an inexpensive way of being a good environmental steward,” Angell said. “Paying the ranchers helps contribute to the financial stability of the ranching operations and gives ranchers the option of not selling their land to developers,” he added.

Besides being a participant in the NE-PES program, Archbold monitors and provides reports for the program to the South Florida Water Management District. “Steffan Pierre, Archbold Environmental Specialist, maintains the monitoring stations with once-a-month checkups to make sure everything is working. The stations are self-sufficient and automated, sending all their data wirelessly to Archbold researchers who evaluate the program,” Angell said.

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