What’s blocking flow south to Everglades National Park?

WEST PALM BEACH – Everglades National Park needs water. Thanks to recent rainfall – which appears to have fallen everywhere except the park – the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) north of the Tamiami Trail are full. Why isn’t more water moving south?

At the June 11 South Florida Water Management District governing board meeting, Governing Board Member Ron Bergeron explained “I believe the natural volumes of water flowing south is extremely important. I will tell you that over the last decade, nine out of 10 years, the Central Everglades would be 3 feet of water 3.5 feet of water, which is not a wetland anymore. It’s a reservoir.” He said the high water levels north the Tamiami Trail tremendously effects all of the wildlife and plant communities. “And on the other side of the Tamiami Trail, it is dry, with very little water, having huge impacts to Florida Bay.”

He said opening up the bottom end of the system would result in a huge benefit to the environment of the Everglades as well as the coastal estuaries.

Governing Board Member Jacqui Thurlow Lippisch asked SFWMD staff to compile a list of issues that prevent water from flowing south. “Perhaps it would be helpful if Mr. (John) Mitnik and Mr. (Drew) Bartlett and any others who could assist made a list of obstacles to sending water to Florida Bay.

“If we had a list of those obstacles, maybe we could drill through it,” she said.

This request received appreciative support from those in the virtual audience.

A social media post shared by members of the Everglades Trust Executive Director earlier this month was referenced in some of the comments. “That sparrow is real alright (sic). But it is not the reason water cannot flow south. Meet. Red. Herring,” Ms. Mitchell posted on Facebook on June 7.

“Anytime someone tells you the federal agencies are not preventing water from flowing south under the Tamiami Trail, they are either grossly ignorant, or they are lying,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers.

“Whenever we have a rain event, the estuaries are going to be bombed, until we have opened up the bottom of this system and let at least 18,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) flow out the bottom. We have between 18,000 and 30,000 cfs of water coming from north of the lake every time we have a storm,” said Mr. Cook. “Right now two of the S-12s (water control structures) are closed.

“WCA 3 is already over schedule,” he said.

The three greatest obstructions to moving Florida south are “the seaside sparrow, the seaside sparrow and the seaside sparrow,” said Mike Elfenbein of the Foundation for Balanced Environmental Stewardship. He said people who know better continue to spread misinformation.

“You have people walking in and out of your doors on a daily basis, who have at one point worked for or with the district, specifically folks like Kimberly Mitchell, Shannon Estenoz, folks who now support the Everglades Foundation and that narrative,” said Mr. Elfenbein. “They will walk out of meetings like this where you guys clearly specify that the sparrow is a problem and they’ll tell everybody that it is a ‘red herring,’ that we’re just making it up, that it has no impediment on water flow whatsoever. And it’s important that you know that because you guys are working hand in hand with these people who continue to obstruct progress.

“At the same time, the people who really want to see you do something, they try to cast us in a dark shadow because we’re talking about some ‘red herring.’ The reality is the sparrow, Jacqui, is the list of obstacles. That is the list. Why folks like Shannon Estenoz and Kim Mitchell, who have been associated with the district for so long, and have advocated for sending water south, continue to obstruct the ability to remove the sparrow obstruction from the system is beyond me. I am hopeful you guys will see through the smoke and mirrors and will work to get rid of this problem, which has been around since Col. Rice was at the Army Corps and advocated for the same thing 20 years ago.”

“This business about the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is serious,” said Mr. Cook. He said according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission, not a drop of water new will go into that park even when the new bridges on the trail are open.

“Nine months of the year, water will be restricted from flowing into the park because of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.”

At the Nov. 14, 2019 meeting of the SFWMD governing board at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defended efforts to restrict water flow under the Tamiami Trial to protect subpopulation A of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Mr. Williams said if the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is completed, it will flood some of the sparrows’ current habitat, but will create more new marl prairie habit than it destroys.

CERP will help the sparrows, said Mr. Williams. But completion of CERP is years, perhaps decades, away.

The focus of the debate, sparrow subpopulation A, lives south of the Tamiami Trail, a man-made dike that intersects the natural Everglades. The road was opened in 1928. Before the road was built, water sheet flowed across the landscape in a swath more than 25 miles wide. In the early years of automobile transportation, when wet season water levels were high, the road was closed and water flowed over it. Over the years, to accommodate heavier vehicles and heavier traffic between Tampa and Miami, the road bed was built up, and water levels controlled to protect the road. Instead of a broad sheetflow, water movement was restricted to ditches with some access under the trail via culverts and water control structures, and most recently, raised bridging in sections totaling 3.6 miles.
Two of the water control structures that allow flow under the trail, S-12A and S-12B, are closed nine months of the year to protect the nesting grounds.

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