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.
These were the eggs of South American apple snails, accidentally introduced from private aquaria since my last visit. Adults really are the size of apples. The natives--the size of golf balls--produce white, BB-size eggs and far fewer of them. The alien snails seem to tolerate wild water fluctuations better than the natives; they thrive where alien hydrilla has extirpated the natives; and, best of all, Everglade snail kites eat them.
Unfortunately, the alien snails have taken major hits when the state (formerly the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the water district and more recently the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) has herbicided hydrilla along with other plants, alien and native, so that anglers can motor around lakes in the Kissimmee basin. For years Gray tried to get spray crews to avoid the kite nests they consistently destroyed when they poisoned supporting vegetation. "They told me the kites could just go somewhere else," he says. "I kept telling them, 'Guys, you can't do this. It's a direct violation of the ESA. Your director could go to jail.' We were getting nowhere with them."
Then, two years ago, Reed's wife, Alita, rousted him from sleep because she'd just gotten word that the Department of Environmental Protection was poised to poison hydrilla, water hyacinth, and other plants around active Everglade snail kite nests on Lake Tohopekaliga, in the Kissimmee's headwaters. Reed raced to the scene where the team was going to assemble. By sheer luck he raised water district board chair Eric Buermann by cell phone. An appalled Buermann promised that any spray order that had been given would be canceled in seconds. It was, and, largely as a result, Lake Tohopekaliga with its alien hydrilla and alien apple snails is one of the few places kites are doing well.
But like Hollywood's cuddly gremlins, seemingly beneficial aliens have a way of turning nasty. Native apple snails graze primarily on the algal scum on plant stems. The aliens eat the actual plants. The exotic snails are heavier and tougher, and one fledgling was seen to spend seven hours trying to open one.
As Gray and I hiked and kayaked along Hickory Hammock Trail, near where the Corps had blown up one of C-38's gated spillways, it became clear to me that even with Okeechobee's current ills, its future was brighter than it had been in 2001. Willows, maidencane, pickerelweed, marsh mallow, and arrowhead were surging back in and along the old, newly filled meanders. "The river is better, and there's an understanding of the lake's problems," Gray declared.
Facilitating that understanding has been an Audubon report released in 2007 demonstrating that the water district's goal of 300,000 acre-feet of upstream water retention needed to be at least 1.2 million acre-feet. The report helped get that goal fixed and was instrumental in the passage of two bills that set better pollution-control rules and increased funding for water-retention projects during wet periods. Water is retained three ways: by reservoirs, pumps that send it into subterranean saline formations, and payment for environmental service whereby ranchers agree to retain water on their land.
The last of these options--designed by the World Wildlife Fund with technical guidance from Audubon--is the least expensive, keeps land on tax rolls, cleanses water, reduces wildlife-killing blue-green algae blooms that occur on reservoirs, and helps wildlife by creating wetland habitat. There are eight cooperating ranches within the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project that can collectively hold 10,682 acre-feet of water. Originally this was a pilot program funded by grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. So well did the pilot program work that the water district has taken over funding and management, and in 2011 it started soliciting payment for environmental service sales from more ranchers.
Money is just one of the benefits ranchers get when they agree to retain water. Near Sebring, Jimmy Wohl showed Gray and me around his family's Rafter T Ranch. He used to pump out the diked section so he could grow grass for the cows, but no matter how much he pumped, the earth stayed wet and the grass did poorly. When diesel fuel hit $2 a gallon he quit pumping. Now he has converted that section to a 150-acre retention area within the 1,000-acre wetland that the state pays him to keep filled during rainy periods. He plants it with limpograss, which can tolerate lots of water and is reasonably nutritious. "Limpograss can still grow when the land is flooded in summer and when the cows aren't grazing here," he said. "And by October, when most of the water is off, it helps feed them till we sell the calves in late June."
"If water management doesn't improve, the Everglade snail kite will probably go extinct in 20 to 30 years," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "But we've finally got the water district's attention; at least they're talking about the problems." Even as he was depressing me with the worst news about the greater Everglades he reminded me that there's good news as well. Although Crist's sugarcane plantation buyout got whittled down from $1.75 billion and 187,000 acres to $197 million and 26,800 acres, it has gone through, and the state retains the option to buy the remaining property. To facilitate desperately needed water flow, the House Subcommittee on Appropriations has approved a 5.5-mile addition to the one-mile Tamiami Trail bridge. With this Congress and this economy that's a miracle.