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High water levels threaten survival of Everglades, expert warns

Heavy rains earlier this month caused water to rise so high that the Everglades could be irreparably damaged, says a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission official.

“We have the highest water level ever since records were kept going into the rainy season,” said Ron Bergeron, of Weston, who is an FWC commissioner.

“This event, if it’s not addressed properly, will have the greatest impact to our wildlife, the environment, the habitat and the plant life that we’ve ever seen.”

Bergeron, who is the FWC’s point man on Everglades issues, said he has been on the phone repeatedly with Gov. Rick Scott over the past 10 days and the governor is “totally involved” in the matter.

In addition, he’s had emergency meetings with state and federal agencies, including the FWC, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The latter two regulate the level and movement of water in the region and have “been on top of the situation,” according to Bergeron.

Bergeron said Scott issued an emergency order on Friday to move water out of the Everglades’ water conservation areas, which extend from southwestern Palm Beach County to Tamiami Trail and west to the Big Cypress National Preserve.

That water would flow into the L-29 Canal along Tamiami Trail, under the roadway’s one-mile bridge and through spillways and culverts into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, which need fresh water.

That’s known as a deviation from the operational schedule of the Corps and the district, which move water at certain times and certain flow rates to maintain specific levels for the time of year. Bergeron said he is confident the Corps should start moving water under the bridge and through several of the other structures early this week.

“The only way you can deviate from normal operations is when you have a catastrophic event, whether it’s a 100-year act of God or a man-made event, to minimize the impact to the global Everglades,” Bergeron said.

“Some areas of the conservation areas received 20 inches of rain through a seven-day period. That’s an act of God. But on top of that, the tri-county area received 15 inches and that is being pumped into the conservation areas.”

He said some water is currently being moved south through a couple of water control structures, but not enough. According to Bergeron, water is flowing into the conservation areas at the rate of 10,000 cubic feet per second and going out at a little more than 3,000 cubic feet per second.

He added that all but a few of the tree islands in the Everglades, which are used by white-tailed deer and other wildlife, including several endangered turtles and snakes, are under water, and the water is too deep for wading birds.

“It’s very scary, inflows that are three times greater than the outflows,” Bergeron said. “The level of the water conservation areas will rise close to one inch a day with those kinds of inflows and no rain. The water is so high above [where it should be at this time of the year] that if the inflows matched the outflows, and there was hardly any rain, it would take until December to get back to regulation.”

Factor in the average rainfall over the past 25 years for the rainy season, which Bergeron said is seven to eight inches a month, and water might need to be moved for quite some time, which could delay work on Everglades restoration projects for several months.

Bergeron said if the water isn’t moved, there might not be an Everglades to restore.

Last year, when record rainfall in January elevated the water levels in the conservation areas, Bergeron, Scott and the other agencies implemented an emergency plan that moved 110 billion gallons of water south of Tamiami Trail in 90 days.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that moving water through the S-12A and S-12B spillways could impact the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Bergeron said agency personnel told him they would like to keep those spillways closed until July 15 to keep water out of the birds’ nesting area in Everglades National Park, but they will evaluate the situation.

swaters@sun-sentinel.com, Twitter @WatersOutdoors

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