The news for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades' lungs and kidneys, is mixed at best. But at last we understand what's at stake and how to heal the lake.
But too little water for too long can be as hurtful as too much. In the drought of 2011 the South Florida Water Management District snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by dropping the lake to a near-record low in order to give sugarcane growers all the water they wanted--more, in fact, than they get in wet years. While the Corps has ultimate authority over Okeechobee water management, the district handles allocations, invariably doing what it wishes.
Even as the marsh plants were rebounding, other parts of the ecosystem were flickering out. Apple snails, recovering from the high hurricane water, were dying again. As soon as a marsh goes dry they estivate in the mud, becoming unavailable to creatures that eat them. Then, if the water doesn't return within three months, they die.
No creature depends more on apple snails than the Everglade snail kite, one of the planet's most endangered birds. Everglade snail kites don't occur outside southern Florida, Cuba, and northwestern Honduras. And the Florida supply of this subspecies (there are two others, in Central and South America) is thought to be fewer than 900--down from 3,500 in 1999. In the years I'd been away, Okeechobee's snail kites had annually produced an average of three fledglings. But in the spring of 2011 there had been 44 nests. It looked like a banner year until the district dewatered the lake. Only 14 nests produced fledglings, and it's unlikely that any survived.
"We waited so long to get kites back," says Reed, "and to lose this group is just so sad. To let birds near fledging starve to death while we were releasing water is insane--and a violation [under the Endangered Species Act]."
The disaster seems to have been partly the work of the state's new Tea Party governor, Rick Scott. While the state water districts aren't under direct control of the governor's office, Scott didn't hesitate to give advice. All spring he and the South Florida Water Management District ignored Audubon's repeated warnings to ration water for Everglade snail kites.
The public has made an enormous investment in Everglades restoration. The Water Resources Development Act of 2000 authorized $1.5 billion for initial work. And up until 2010 the federal government had spent $765 million and the state $1.5 billion. But Scott, who likens writing budgets to cleaning attics, has tossed that investment out the attic window along with many of the professionals the public had hired to fix the Everglades. One of his first actions was to petition the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to relax regulations for limiting the fertilizer and animal waste that had been choking the greater Everglades for decades. Here's how well those existing regulations had been working: In 2000 the EPA accepted a water-district limit for phosphorus entering Okeechobee at 140 metric tons a year. Today the lake gets about 600 metric tons. On watershed dairy farms, Gray and I saw one of the reasons--cows were standing and defecating in ponded tributaries.
On May 26, 2011, Governor Scott signed a bill that slashed the water district's budget by $128 million (30 percent), crippling its ability to do authorized restoration work. Then in June he flew to the district's Palm Beach headquarters in his private jet for a "ceremonial signing" of the bill. "To come to Palm Beach County and rub salt in the wounds of people who will soon go home to their families unemployed is insulting," State Representative Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) told The Palm Beach Post. "Can you imagine the governor showing up to celebrate your unemployment?"
Also in June, Scott appointed to the water district's governing board Juan Portuondo, former president of the Montenay Power Corporation, whose trash incinerator, known as "the Miami Monster," polluted the Everglades. Later, according to the Miami-Dade County inspector general, Portuondo was paid by Montenay to lobby for it and simultaneously paid by a company hired by the county to inspect its Miami Monster.
Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, the two Republicans who served as governor before Scott, were Everglades champions. In 2003-04, under Bush, $225 million was appropriated for Everglades restoration. In 2007--08, under Crist, $100 million was appropriated. And Crist conceived and consummated (though it wasn't fully funded) a $1.75-billion deal to buy out 187,000 acres of wetlands owned by U.S. Sugar. Scott's proposed 2011-12 budget for the Everglades calls for $17 million.
"The Everglade snail kite disaster was wholly manmade and wholly predictable," declared Gray. "Sometimes when we're talking about kites people say, 'Well, that's just one bird.' But kites are a symbol. When kites disappear it means turtles are disappearing, frogs are disappearing, fish are disappearing, insects are disappearing, neotropical birds that depend on the insects are disappearing. "
As with most of the lake's ecological ills, the kite loss is the result of Army Corps engineering. The Corps finished girdling the lake with its Hoover Dike in 1967. And four years later it finished "improving," as it says, the Kissimmee River by slicing out its meanders and converting it to a lifeless gutter so that its water shot unsettled and unfiltered into the lake. Then, after the water dropped much of its suspended organic matter, the Corps vented it to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico via the "improved" and similarly gutterized St. Lucie canal and Caloosahatchee River.