Everglades Restoration Continues Despite Water Scarcity

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, March 8, 2008 (ENS) – South Florida experienced a severe water shortage during Water Year 2007, more than a foot below historic averages for the region. From May 1, 2006 to April 31, 2007, low rainfall reduced flows across the entire region, according the annual report released Tuesday by Florida state agencies.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District report details a year of scientific, engineering and restoration work to improve the environmental quality of the Everglades and the entire South Florida ecosystem.

“Despite the hardships associated with a severe regional water shortage, low water levels provided unique opportunities for environmental restoration over the past year,” said DEP Secretary Michael Sole. “This report captures the cutting-edge science behind the efforts, as well as the hard work of dedicated state of Florida employees.”

Wetland in the Everglades Agricultural
Area (Photo courtesy USGS)

Made up of more than 50 individual reports, the document offers research summaries, data analyses, financial updates and a searchable database of environmental projects throughout the Everglades, Kissimmee Basin, Lake Okeechobee, and South Florida’s estuaries and coastal areas.

“The comprehensive data captured in the 2008 South Florida Environmental Report supports prudent environmental decision-making and represents the scientific basis for our agencies’ environmental initiatives,” said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. “It documents and demonstrates Florida’s commitment to restoration.”

The 2007 water shortage conditions were most pronounced in Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater body wholly within the continental United States, where water levels reached an all-time record low of 8.82 feet above sea level on July 2, 2007.

Still, low water levels provided opportunities for lake management and restoration. During the summer of 2007, two million cubic yards of muck were removed from 2,000 acres of shoreline in Lake Okeechobee.

This dredging is expected to restore habitat for submerged aquatic vegetation and native plants and wildlife, and provided the added benefit of removing about 237 metric tons of phosphorus from the lake.

Lake Okeechobee and its watershed are key components of South Florida’s Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades ecosystem extending from the Kissimmee River in the north to Florida Bay in the south.

During the 20th Century, much of the land around the lake was converted to agricultural use. To the north, dairy and cattle ranching industries developed while in the south, sugar cane and vegetable farming increased. Changes in land use resulted in increased deposits of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen into the lake especially when stormwater runoff occurred.

The excess nutrients supported blooms of toxic blue-green algae, which covered more than 40 percent of the lake surface in the1980s.

Since 1994, South Florida’s six stormwater treatment areas, together with farming best management practices in the Everglades Agricultural Area, have prevented nearly 2,700 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the southern Everglades, according to the report.

During Water Year 2007, South Florida’s 45,000 acres of treatment wetlands captured more than 900,000 acre-feet of water headed for the Everglades and retained 153 metric tons of phosphorous, the report shows, reducing phosphorous inflows to the Everglades by 71 percent, the 12th consecutive year of phosphorus reductions.

Efforts to control exotic species included an accelerated invasive plant management program in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Biological agents were released to control the spread of melaleuca and Old World Climbing Fern (Lygodium), as well as the Mexican bromeliad weevil.

In a continuing partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, Phase I restoration of the Kissimmee River has reconnected 15 miles of former river channel to its floodplain.

Completed in September 2007, backfilling of nearly two miles of canal re-established flow in four new miles of river channel and allowed inundation of 155 acres of floodplain wetlands.

The State of Florida, the Florida Legislature and the South Florida Water Management District have invested more than $2.4 billion toward the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the 50-50 state and federal partnership to restore, protect and preserve the water resources of central and southern Florida.

An additional $1.8 billion has been invested by the state in Everglades water quality improvements, with $250 million committed to the Lake Okeechobee and Estuary Recovery Plan and the Northern Everglades Initiative.

The 2008 South Florida Environmental Report is online at www.sfwmd.gov.

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