Water pumped ‘upstream’ into big lake; heavy rains in Everglades leave wildlife scrambling to find dry ground

OKEECHOBEE — A drought followed by a month of record rainfall has sent water into Lake Okeechobee from all directions.

Since the start of June, billions of gallons of water from the St. Lucie waterway have been flowing into Lake Okeechobee at Port Mayaca to prevent flooding in Martin County and reduce the risk posed to the estuaries by large volumes of freshwater. This was possible because the drought left the lake level lower than the water level in the C-44 canal. No lake water has been released to the St. Lucie waterway (C-44 canal) at Port Mayaca this year; instead, water from the C-44 has been flowing into the lake. (According to the University of Florida Water Study, the Martin County runoff that flows into the C-44 is higher in phosphorus than the water in Lake Okeechobee, hence the coastal runoff is polluting the lake.)

Releases into the Caloosahatchee River, which were required to prevent saltwater intrusion in that waterway during the dry season, stopped when the rains began. No water is being released from Lake Okeechobee at Moore Haven.

Over the weekend, water managers starting pumping water from the Everglades north into the big lake to protect wildlife from flooding in the water conservation areas (WCAs).

After South Florida experienced an unprecedented level of rainfall over the last few weeks, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) closed Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3) to recreational activities due to the more than 15 inches of rain received across that region. FWC further urged state and federal agencies to aid in lowering the damaging water levels to reduce their negative impacts on Florida’s wildlife and Water Conservation Areas (WCAs).

As a result, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) took swift action in the form of an emergency order. In reliance of this order, South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) water managers deployed emergency operating procedures to help the severely flooded WCAs and relieve the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), some of which received volumes of water over triple their capacity as a result of the 100-year storm event. The emergency operational practices include moving A-1 Flow Equalization Basin treated water north into Lake Okeechobee. During normal operations, this water moves south into the WCAs and then into the Everglades. Moving it north instead will reduce the high water impacts on both the STAs and the WCAs.

This operation began Saturday, June 24, and will continue until the risk of damage to the STAs, WCA-3 and Florida’s wildlife subsides.

The emergency actions currently being undertaken by the water managers remain the best possible alternative to protect wildlife in the WCAs, according to SFWMD reports.

The berm created by the Tamiami Trail prevents more water from flowing south from the Everglades. One mile of raised bridgeway has been completed; approximately 2.5 miles of raised roadway are under construction.

Another complication: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) prohibits water managers from sending the excess water south by opening the S-12 A and B structures along the Tamiami Trail due to their commitment to protection of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

State and federal water managers continue to urge USFWS to accept additional water into Everglades National Park under these 100-year rain event emergency conditions.

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