By James YocumJanuary 17, 2020
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District joined 360 stakeholders from around the nation at the 35th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference held January 9-12 on Captiva Island, Florida.
The conference brought together federal, state, local, tribal, non-profits, artists and other interested stakeholders to review progress made in 2019 on Everglades restoration and to discuss current and future projects.
Col Andrew Kelly, district commander, joined a panel to discuss how the district managed Lake Okeechobee water during 2019 and the plans for managing the lake in the future as Herbert Hoover Dike Rehabilitation and Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects come to a close.
Kelly said the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual will take into account the HHD rehabilitation as well as other projects will be completed and integrated into the water management system, like the Indian River Lagoon-South (C-44) Reservoir and Caloosahatchee (C-43) Reservoir.
The Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir is also expected to add additional flexibility and storage into the system when it is complete, as are plans by the South Florida Water Management District to build storage north of Lake Okeechobee.
"We're going to go through a very deliberate, long, public process to figure out how the management will be done in the future," Kelly said.
Kelly said that he has heard from stakeholders about how important Lake Okeechobee is to the Everglades restoration plans, since most of the water moving through the system passes through the lake. The importance of finding new approaches to Lake Okeechobee management was on display in 2019, when the district intentionally lowered the lake after several years of high water in an effort to improve lake ecology.
Dr. Paul Gray, Everglades science coordinator for Audubon Florida, said the use of operational flexibility in 2019 to lower the lake really helped it recover some of the submerged aquatic vegetation lost over the past few high-water years. The SAV provides habitat for fish and acts as a filter of sorts to improve water clarity and quality.
"We try to have at least 40,000 acres of submerged plants out there - about 60 square miles," Gray said. "By the time (Hurricane) Irma was done (in 2017), we were down to 5,000, not 40,000. The drawdown last year to 11 feet really helped restart the growth of that stuff because it is down in the very deep water."
Gray said the lake has about 28,000 acres of SAV right now, and will likely continue to regenerate.
"With the levels right now, a lot of that stuff is tall enough that the sun is reaching it, so it should get much, much stronger in the spring," he said. "We're very optimistic about the short-term recovery of the lake."
Lake Okeechobee wasn't the only topic district leadership addressed at the conference. Lt. Col. Todd Polk, the deputy district commander for South Florida, joined a panel to discuss barriers to moving water south to the Everglades and what is being done to make that happen more quickly.
Polk's panel addressed multiple topics, including ongoing efforts to raise the Tamiami Trail to allow water to flow into Everglades National Park, the EAA Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area that will hold and treat water that can be sent south to the park, the C-111 Spreader Canal that will help modify existing flow of water to more closely resemble that of historical pre-drainage conditions, when it moved through the Shark River and Taylor Sloughs, and many other projects needed to move the right quality and quantity of water to the right place at the right time. Without these projects, the panel said that the Everglades will continue to see peat collapse that compounds with sea level rise to increase salinity and damage the ecosystem of the Everglades and Florida Bay.
Initial reports from long-term studies seem to point to likely success for Everglades restoration strategies that have taken place so far.
Dr. Evelyn Gaiser, chair of Everglades Research at Florida International University, reported that the trends seen in the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program have shown positive effects since Phase 1 of the Tamiami Trail project began allowing more fresh water into the Marsh Mangrove Ecotone, an area that is very sensitive to shifts in water management.
"It's very exciting to have long-term data that gives us perspective of the kinds of changes we have been seeing in the ecosystem so we can understand the facts around these incredible projects that are happening," Gaiser said.
Gaiser said the difference between the "pre-bridge" measurements and the "post-bridge" measurements that took place after Phase 1 of the Tamiami Trail project show an increase in hydro-periods (days when a wetland is covered by water) and corresponding improvements in the biological community.
"What we are seeing from these data is that ... in the most recent years, when we are increasing the hydro-period, or the flooding days, in our ecosystem that our biological system is able to sequester, or retain, the nutrients. That is a very good thing to be seeing in this ecosystem," Gaiser said.
The need for more freshwater to the Everglades and Florida Bay was not in dispute, but the panel members did agree that part of the solution has to include ways to keep the coastal communities safe from flooding as water moves south.
Polk said the district has been testing the Modified Water Deliveries Project to see the impact on structures, and the system is working as planned thus far.
"The Mod Waters field test - we have had increment 1 and 2 -increased flows step-wise over the past several years," Polk said. "The flow to the park has increased substantially during that time due to operational changes as well as some extraordinary storm events and rainfall that have enabled some higher flows. The system has performed very well during these tests and have shown the ability to operate the L-29 Canal that parallels the Tamiami Trail up to the 8.5 foot level. We're making good progress."
Polk said the Corps wants to keep moving as fast as possible on these projects. "We have to maintain the momentum," he said. "We need to reap the benefits of these foundational projects - from the C-111 South Dade, from the Mod Waters Deliveries - they're coming together."
Polk stressed the need to stay true to the Integrated Delivery Schedule to ensure we deliver projects the Everglades need for restoration, but to understand that we still must meet all our federal legal requirements. An example is the EAA reservoir, parts of which are waiting on a Corps of Engineers permit to begin construction.
"Our permitting does take time," Polk said. "We are committed for May of this year. It takes serious effort to make sure we have dam risk safety addressed. These are things that we can't just window dress. It takes time, but things are running smoothly, and we will have a permit decision by May 2020."
Polk said that the plan in place is breaking down those barriers that have stopped fresh water from flowing south to the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, and that the Comprehensive Operating Plan will take advantage of all these projects to make that flow happen is coming pretty soon.
"I look forward to that great day when the northern portions of that L-29 levee get removed and we see that full flow," he said. "We're going to get there by finalizing our Comprehensive Operating Plan, our COP. That record of decision is coming up in August, and that is what is going to allow us to take full advantage of the C-111 South Dade and Modified Water project to achieve the optimal restoration benefits of these foundation projects."
Ryan Fisher, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works provided the keynote address during a luncheon, and additional panel speakers from the Jacksonville District included Tim Murphy, the Deputy District Engineer, and Howard Gonzales, Ecosystem Branch Chief.