Life Support

Life Support

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.

By Ted Williams/Photography by Katherine Wolkoff
Published: November-December 2011

July 10, 2011, 9:00 a.m., and the heat makes me wonder how people can live in South Florida in high summer. Paul Gray and I push our earmuff bands forward to hold down our hats and feel the welcome rush of cooling air as Don Fox guns his airboat out onto the heart, lungs, and kidneys of the Everglades--Lake Okeechobee.

To our south, hidden by 467,200 acres of dry lake bottom and shallow water draped over the curve of the earth, lie Florida's ever-thirsty sugarcane plantations, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Florida Bay. To our north the lake collects the now-feeble flow of its major artery, the damaged but recovering Kissimmee River. All this is part of the "greater Everglades." Earth has no other place like this 4.5-million-acre grassland-and-savanna landscape, with its rich mix of salt, brackish, and freshwater habitats. The greater Everglades sustains species or subspecies of at least 1,030 plants, 60 reptiles, 75 mammals, 430 fish, 345 birds, and 40 amphibians.

 This is the second time Gray, Audubon of Florida's Okeechobee science coordinator, and Fox, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, have guided me around the lake and its marsh system by airboat. A decade earlier Audubon had sent me here to report on Okeechobee's human-caused illnesses (see "Big Water Blues," July-August 2001). The word Okeechobee is Seminole for "plenty big water." Now there isn't plenty or even enough. But low water was exactly what the long-dormant seedbed in the bottom muck needed to germinate.

The lake and marsh systems have undergone astonishing recovery since I last saw them. This has not been the result of enlightened management--just the opposite. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the lake's inflows and outflows, and when it comes to controlling natural systems, the Corps is rarely in doubt but frequently in error.

There had been a drought in 2001, too. And in the two years that followed there had been gradual recovery. But high water from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 erased that recovery. Until 2006 the Corps had, when possible, kept the lake so high that its submergent and emergent vegetation drowned and no sunlight reached the seedbed. The strategy was to make sure the sugar industry and Gold Coast lawns would always have lots of water. But in spring 2006 the Corps' ancient, earthen Hoover Dike, which rings the lake, began to fail under the pressure of Hurricane Wilma's water. So the Corps dumped billions of gallons. Then came the drought of 2007. With little water retained in the Kissimmee River floodplain (because the Corps had hacked and gouged it with drainage canals), the lake went down to 8.82 feet--a foot lower than in its recorded history. 

Midges and shad are two of the lake's most important food-chain foundations, passing their energy to small fish, to fish that eat the small fish, to turtles, alligators, and birds that eat fish of all sizes. After all the high water from the hurricanes, midge larvae went from about 10,000 per square meter to two (not 2,000--two). With dirty water again blocking sunlight, plankton disappeared and with it the planktivorous shad.

But for now at least, the midges and shad are back. Mudflats we had slogged across in 2001 clutch chartreuse carpets of wild millet, an important waterfowl staple. Young bulrushes stabilize what had been eroding edges of the marsh piled with windrows of rotting plants ripped out by waves. Across thousands of acres where we'd seen only black water, yellow blooms of American lotus wave in the hot wind. Marsh plants proliferate where we'd encountered an anaerobic witch's brew of moldering vegetation. Alligators, turtles, and fish swirl from our path.

Everywhere we go we are surrounded by birds orbiting above us, lifting from the surface, dropping onto it, bobbing, dabbling, probing, and strutting through reborn marshes and newly oxygenated water. We count 47 bird species, including long-absent roseate spoonbills, mottled ducks, blue-winged teal, black-necked stilts, long-billed dowitchers, lesser yellowlegs, black skimmers, little and great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, tricolored herons, great and snowy egrets, least bitterns, white pelicans, glossy and white ibises, limpkins, wood storks, and Everglade snail kites, crow-sized raptors with sharply hooked beaks. On Eagle Bay Island, lifeless in 2001, there had been 4,518 wading-bird nests in April.

Okeechobee's recovery has made a strong impression on Nathaniel Reed, the lake's and the Everglades' tireless, ageless advocate, who served presidents Nixon and Ford as Assistant Secretary of the Interior and Audubon as a board member. Reed takes people on airboat rides to raise money for the Everglades Foundation. "They don't understand why Paul Gray, Don Fox, and I get weepy at certain places," he says. "This was all open, muddy water, and here we are going through magnificent stands of native plants. It's hard to explain how much this means to us. It has been the most unbelievable example of nature's forgiveness I have ever laid eyes on."

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.

Before this replumbing of the northern Everglades, summer rain had collected in wetlands and aquifers and, during all but the driest of months, had been doled out to the lake and a cleansing, 100-mile river of sawgrass and pickerelweed that metabolized phosphorus, filtered sediments, and delivered soft, sweet water to Florida Bay. Okeechobee's natural exhalations were as beneficial as its inhalations because they never lasted long and they allowed organic muck to dry, decompose, burn, and blow away. Insect larvae and succulent vegetation flourished in the shallows, providing food and cover for turtles, frogs, salamanders, alligators, wading birds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Then the insects would shuck their larval skins and take wing in vast clouds that sustained North America's energy-drained songbirds as they funneled through Florida on their way north and south. You can't have a healthy system if you flush and fill it like a toilet.

"The water district will tell you it dewatered the lake for the economy," says Gray. "Whose economy are we talking about? In winter the town of Okeechobee's population doubles to something like 70,000 due almost entirely to the influx of anglers. But last spring they couldn't even use the boat ramps [so severely did the district shrink the lake]." When the lake's fishery is healthy it annually contributes $203 million to Florida's economy.

In late May the district installed pumps to continue allocations for sugarcane irrigation, thereby further flouting not only the Endangered Species Act but the state rule that forbids it to let the lake's level fall below 11 feet for 80 days more than once in six years. "That's the power of the sugar people," says Reed. "They can still reach someone in Washington."

 

I needed to compare the condition of the whole watershed with what I'd seen from a Cessna 172 in 2001. Receiving no invitation from Governor Scott to fly me around in his private jet, I accepted one from his Palm Beach neighbor Gary Lickle, a board member of the Everglades Foundation. Lickle picked me up at the mouth of the Kissimmee River in his 900-pound Cubcrafters Carbon Cub floatplane, which can take off in less than three seconds and slow to 28 mph without stalling. There's room for one passenger--directly behind the pilot.

Lickle, who runs a trust company, grew up hunting and fishing, and now, as he says, hunts the sea in summer and the land in winter. "We all lately learned how important the Everglades are to our existence," he remarked. "We want to make sure all this is around for our kids and grandkids because it's so special." 

As we flew over the gutter that used to be the Kissimmee River I noticed a metal stick moving between my knees. "Is that how you fly this thing?" I inquired.

"Yes," he said. "Take over." With some trepidation I steered north, still following the straightjacket the Corps had forced the Kissimmee into, thereby destroying its magic along with the magic of its name, which it changed to "C-38." When the river had its way, all marshes within and well beyond its floodplain couldn't be drained because there was no downhill. With the advent of C-38, landowners over thousands of square miles cut canals, draining their wetlands into it. Perishing with the river were millions of fish, turtles, frogs, salamanders, alligators, snakes, mammals, and marsh-dependent birds.

My mood darkened as I flew north. But suddenly the natural river reappeared and with it all its old beauty, including the birds. Having paid the Corps $35 million to destroy the river, taxpayers have so far paid it $291 million to fix part of it. When that partial fix is completed they'll be out an estimated $980 million. The Corps had placed 16 miles of C-38 back in the original riverbed and blown up one of the five gated spillways with which it had vainly attempted to control flows. It will blow up another spillway and restore an additional six miles, leaving 30 miles of gutter.

One of the ways the district is attempting to heal the greater Everglades is with stormwater treatment areas (STAs)--giant filter marshes, frequently connected to reservoirs. Presently we swung out over the $75 million Lakeside STA, which will annually remove 19 tons of phosphorus. But STAs are expensive, and in big rain events water goes through so fast it doesn't get cleaned. To comply with the Clean Water Act the district must cut phosphorus input by 460 tons a year. If it depends on just STAs instead of other options, such as forcing best management practices on dairy farms, it can't possibly find the money it needs. As things stand now, everyone pays save polluters.

So slow and low were we flying when we reached the lake that I cheerfully relinquished the stick to Lickle. A half-mile swath of brown, withered cattails marked the area Don Fox had sprayed with herbicides. Cattails are native, but when water going to Lake Okeechobee carries more than 20 parts per billion of phosphorus they become invasive. The lake's inflow now carries 150 to 200 ppb, and as a result cattails and other nutrient-swilling plants are destroying natural diversity all the way to Florida Bay.

We seemed to hover with the ospreys. A manatee that had negotiated the entire St. Lucie canal sashayed over a shallow bar. Tire-sized nests tilapia had excavated with their tails gave wet and newly dry sections of marsh the appearance of having been saturation bombed by B-52s. I could ID most birds, see every turtle and alligator and many fish. I could even make out the rouge of pinhead-size apple snail eggs festooning plant stems.

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.

Recently the shells of golf-ball-size alien snails have been showing up under kite nests. That could mean the parents are teaching their young to select for immature snails they can open. Maybe the water district has learned something from all the bad press and the knowledge that it caused unlawful jeopardy to snail kites. (Audubon has been contemplating legal action but as of this writing is pursuing dialogue.) Maybe Governor Scott, already hugely unpopular even with his Tea Party, will serve but one term. 

"One thing I've learned in this job is patience," Gray told me shortly before we went our separate ways.

I'm shorter on both patience and decades than Gray. But if I'm around in 2021, I hope and expect to find: a cleaner Lake Okeechobee; agriculture that doesn't corrupt water quality, wildlife, recreation, and political leadership; inflows and outflows that seep as well as gush; and even more birds--including fledgling Everglade snail kites.

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

To keep up with breaking news about the greater Everglades ecosystem and to learn what you can do to help its fish and wildlife, go to audubonoffloridanews.org. If you're interested in getting regular email alerts about the Everglades and about Florida conservation issues in general, click here.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Lake Okeechobie

Thank you for this great article. I actually feel
hopeful after reading it.

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