Closures in the Everglades because of high water levels from record winter rains have caused some confusion for anglers, paddlers, airboaters and others who enjoy spending time in the River of Grass.
The reason is the "CLOSED" signs posted at boat ramps. At first glance, you'd assume there is no boating or fishing access.
In actuality, shore anglers can fish from the ramps and boaters can fish in the canals.
"The interior marshes are closed," said Barron Moody, the Regional Fisheries Administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's South Region. "We've done this in the past. More typically we're dealing with high-water closures in the summer rather than the spring."
The marshes are closed except for a few areas to prevent white-tailed deer and other animals from being stressed by humans. The high water has flooded many tree islands where animals typically hang out, so they are crowded onto the few islands that are still above water.
Areas of the marsh without a lot of tree islands are open to airboaters, anglers and kayakers. They include Water Conservation Area 2A from the L-35B Levee at Sawgrass Recreation Park north to the East-West Trail, which runs from Lox Road to U.S. Highway 27. WCA 3A South east of the Miami Canal and between Alligator Alley and the L-67A Canal at Everglades Holiday Park also is open to boaters. The details are available at myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/notices.
Moody said high water disperses fish throughout the nearly 700,000 acres of the Everglades Wildlife Management Area. While that might make fishing tough now, it will make for better fishing down the road.
"It's not going to be bad for the fish," Moody said, noting that bass have access to an abundance of quality spawning areas. "In fact, some of our predictive models show that a couple of years from now, if we have low water, we could have really strong fishing in the canals."
Moody added that fluctuations in water levels benefit the Everglades, although extreme high water is harmful to habitat.
The good news there according to FWC commissioner Ron Bergeron of Weston is that water levels in WCA 3A have dropped eight inches since Gov. Rick Scott worked with a host of state and federal agencies to let water flow south into the L-29 Canal along the north side of Tamiami Trail and under the roadway into Everglades National Park.
"We've got 1 billion gallons a day going through the 19 structures on Tamiami Trail and the 1-mile bridge," said Bergeron of the flowage easement, adding that private lands have not been adversely affected.
"There's been no flooding. We had some minor complaints from a couple of farmers and we went down there and set up a pump."
Bergeron also emphasized that the unprecedented movement of fresh water out of the conservation area has benefited the park and Florida Bay.
He said water had never been allowed to flow under the 1-mile bridge, which was completed three years ago, until mid-February when the easement took effect.
"It's going to Florida Bay, which is dying from lack of water," Bergeron said, noting that sea grass was dying because of the bay's high salinity levels.
The drop in water level in the conservation areas has opened more tree islands to wildlife. Bergeron went to Hackberry Island several weeks ago and not only saw deer tracks everywhere, but also panther tracks. Cameras were placed on the island and three days later there was video of a panther, which can be seen on Bergeron's website savetheglades.org under "High Water Update."
Yet another benefit of the flowage easement: Bergeron said not as much water from Lake Okeechobee has to be sent down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers to Stuart and Fort Myers. He said lake water is instead being cleaned in stormwater treatment areas before being sent south.
"The good thing is we've got more water going out than we've got coming in," said Bergeron, who said the Everglades water level needs to drop 18 more inches by May to reach its average level heading into the rainy season, and who would like the flowage easement to remain in place so what he calls the Global Everglades — everything from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay — remains healthy and vibrant.
"I do applaud the federal agencies, the Corps of Engineers, the park, DEP, water management, FWC and Gov. Scott," Bergeron said. "I've got to say that this is government working in the best interests of the public to minimize the damage to one of the natural wonders of the world."
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