Heavy rainfall south of lake fills WCAs: Some water constrol structures closed to protect endangered sparrows

OKEECHOBEE — The good news: Freshwater is flowing to Everglades National Park from the Water Conservation Areas south of Lake Okeechobee. According to South Florida Water Management District Chief District Engineer John Mitnik, since the rains started two weeks ago, water has been flowing steadily south at maximum capacity from the water conservation areas (WCAs) north of the Tamiami Trail through the water control structures.

Maximum capacity, that is for the structures that are not restricted due to the Endangered Species Act. According to SFWMD, the s334 and s12a and s12b water control structures will remain closed until mid-July to protect the breeding grounds of the Cape Sable Sea Sparrow.

The bad news: No water is flowing south from Lake Okeechobee because the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) and WCAs south of the lake are already full from heavy rainfall in that basin.

The WCAs are so full that on May 31, the SFWMD closed public access to Sportsman’s Crossing on the levee at Water Conservation Area 2A due to high water levels. WCA-2A itself is still open for public recreation.

“As the result of recent rainfall over the past two weeks, the WCAs are all above regulation schedule,” said Mr. Mitnik. He added that water managers are maximizing flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, but the existing water control structures cannot move water any faster.

Some numbers to consider:

• Water moving south from WCA3 to Everglades National Park on May 30: 896 cubic feet per second (cfs), or about 484 million gallons per day.

• Flow into Lake Okeechobee on May 30: 6,787 cfs or about 3.6 billion gallons per day.

• Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule: 12.5 feet to 15.5 ft. Level on May 30: 14.08 ft.

• WCA-1 regulation schedule: 15.75 ft. Level on May 30: 16.91 to 16.97 ft.

• WCA-2A regulation schedule: 11 ft. Level on May 30: 12.35-13.88 ft.

• WCA-3A regulation schedule: 9.5 ft. Level on May 30: 10.3 ft.

• No water was released to the coastal estuaries in May. On June 1, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started releases of 4,000 cfs to the Caloosahatchee at Moore Haven, and 1,800 cfs to the St. Lucie as measured at the St. Lucie Lock. The flow to the St. Lucie will include a mixture of lake water and basin runoff into the C-44 Canal; the distance from the Port Mayaca Canal to the St. Lucie Canal is 23.9 miles.

• On May 30, the flow east from local basin runoff through the St. Lucie Lock was 1,287 cfs.

• On May 30, the flow west through the Franklin Lock from basin runoff was 2,064 cfs.

That means abundant clean freshwater is available to send to Florida Bay, but it’s trapped on the north side of the Tamiami Trail.

What’s the answer to moving more Lake Okeechobee water south to Florida Bay?

“The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) contemplates an entire re-engineering that would allow you to move more water south,” Mr. Mitnik explained.

The CEPP is a $1.9 billion slate of storage and conveyance projects on land already in public ownership south of Lake Okeechobee. The southern components of this plan will allow additional water to be directed south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay and provide additional opportunity to reduce releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. CEPP is congressionally authorized and awaiting funding.

A key factor in moving water south is raising portions of the Tamiami Trail to allow water to resume its natural flow south. The 275 miles of roadway from Tampa to Miami acts as a dam blocking the flow of water into the southern Everglades.

In 2005, the corps proposed an 11-mile bridge west of Miami. In 2008, Congress allocated funding for a 1-mile bridge. The 1 mile of bridged roadway was completed in March 2013.

In 2016, $180 million was allocated, with the cost shared 50-50 by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the State of Florida, for a 2.6-mile bridged roadway, about 4.5 miles west of the 1-mile bridge.

Mr. Mitnik said the second phase of raised bridging is under construction by the Department of Transportation. It is projected to be competed by the end of 2018.

As soon as the raised roadway is completed, flow to Florida Bay should increase immediately, Mr. Mitnik explained.

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