Will sparrow continue to block water flowing south?

Posted 3/14/24

Will protection for a bird that may no longer even be there stop water managers from sending south...

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Will sparrow continue to block water flowing south?


WEST PALM BEACH — Will protection for a bird that may no longer even be there stop water managers from sending Lake Okeechobee water south in a few weeks?

The Tamiami Trail acts as a dam across South Florida from Tampa to Miami, causing water to back up on the north side of the road and the area on the south side of the road to be unnaturally dry. In recent years, more culverts under the road and bridging to raise the road have been added in an attempt to restore more of the natural flow.

However, nine months of the year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required to close two water control structures to protect the nesting area of a subpopulation of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.

Lake Okeechobee has been high since 2022, when water managers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pumped billions of gallons of flood water from Hurricane Ian down the Kissimmee River to save about 10,000 homes in Orlando from flooding.

Since the start of the 2023-2024 “dry season,” instead of receding, Lake Okeechobee continued to rise with the heavy rainfall brought by El Nino weather system.

Due to the high water levels in Lake Okeechobee and the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) south of the lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) obtained a federal deviation to allow them to keep the gates open for 90 days.

In mid-February with the at lake 16.3 feet above sea level, the high level of Lake Okeechobee caused USACE to start releasing fresh water east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River.

On March 31, the 90-day deviation for  will end. Unless that deviation is extended, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will shut the S-12 A and B water control structures to protect the nesting ground of a subpopulation of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.

At the March 14 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District, representatives from communities throughout the district expressed their frustration.

“The lake is in trouble,” said Mark Perry of the Florida Oceanographic Society. “It has been kept too high for too long, since Hurricane Ian in 2022. When the lake jumped up from 15 to 16 feet, we were saying, you need to start letting water out of the lake.”

USACE waited too long to start lake releases, he said. Now the 1,800 cubic feet per second being sent to the St. Lucie and 4,000 cfs being sent to the Caloosahatchee are turning the estuaries fresh.

“We should have been managing the lake a lot better. We should have been doing it last fall. Consequently, we are stuck in this situation,” he said.

“As we talk about sending water south, sending water south, it’s important to consider that Water Conservation Area 3A and 2A continue to be over their regulation schedule, so there is no ability to send more water south,” said Mike Elfenbein of the Cypress Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. “There’s no where to send it south. South is full.”

“Whatever you call the lake schedule, it’s not helping Lake Okeechobee,” said Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida. “It’s being killed every day with decisions that are putting people first. I hope all these agencies put the word HEAL in their vocabulary and their view on how they can get the system healed. We’re drowning down here. The islands are still damp. The Miccosukee people can’t even plant their corn and pumpkins on the islands because the islands are still too wet. And here we are, we’re going to go into the next few weeks where the corps is going to shut all these gates. We’re going to be in a situation like last year where our islands are drowning. They’re still drowning. We haven’t recovered yet and your estuaries are getting decimated. This system is broken.

“The Everglades, Florida Bay, our estuaries, they can’t take anymore. We all need clean, healthy water to survive. This process is broken,” Osceola said.

“Whatever is going on holding the water too high, it’s killing the lake. It’s almost like domestic abuse. The lake is being abused. Everybody wants to cry about how the lake water is hurting them. Everyone is hurting that lake. She’s being abused and we need to stop abusing here,” she said. “It’s like the perpetuator of the abuse is crying they are the victim. It’s the other way around.

“We need to be more proactive in helping the waters of Florida heal,” said Osceola.

Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation said over the past month, the discharges have only taken about 6 inches off Lake Okeechobee.

“We need to get condition-based operations at the south end," she said. "Closing the S-12s right now and the other structures is pure insanity. We’re drowning the Central Everglades. We’re drowning the lake. We’re ruining the filter throughout. And we’re ruining our estuaries as a result, because once you have killed everything upstream it’s not good for the estuaries.

“We’ve got to do better,” she said.

SFWMD Governing Board Member Ron Bergeron said there is doubt if the birds are even still in that nesting area as no one has seen a Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow there in a decade. If the birds are there, they could be relocated, he added.

Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers said he has been bringing up this issue with SFWMD Governing Boards for 20 years.

“Down at the bottom of the system there is a plug, and it’s a little bird,” he said. Cook said the water won’t flow south until the protections for that bird are removed and the water is allowed to resume its natural flow.

lake okeechobee, tamiami trail, sparrow, lake releases