Q&A: Stephen Schneider
With an extended drought causing record low water levels in Lake Okeechobee, the heart and lungs of the Everglades, engineers in Florida recently raced into action—sending swarms of bulldozers and backhoes to scrape newly exposed, phosphorous-laden muck into trucks to be hauled away. The puddinglike layer along the bottom of the 730-square-mile lake, largely the result of fertilizer runoff, is hard to get rid of when it is under water.
“We had to find something good in this drought,” says Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the agency responsible for the state’s water resources from Orlando to the Keys. The $11.4 million initiative is more cost effective than dredging or paying to treat the lake water downstream, according to Wehle.
“Every little bit helps,” says Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee science coordinator for Audubon of Florida. At the same time, he points out that if bulldozers gouging up a wetland is an improvement, “we’re really not where we want to be in terms of the health of our ecosystem.”
Lake Okeechobee once supported a continuous 18,000-square-mile ecosystem (roughly twice the size of New Hampshire). An unbroken sheet of water moved south from wetlands along the Kissimmee River through the lake and into the slow-flowing, ridge and slough waterscape of the Everglades. But more than a century of development has eaten up the marshland that used to soak up wet-season rains and temper drought by slowly feeding the region. Drainage and flood control reshaped the hydrology, effectively cutting off Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades.
A nearly $8 billion federal plan, passed by Congress seven years ago, aimed to bring back more natural water flows (see “The Everglades Rises Again,” Audubon, August 2001). But the lack of promised federal funding, missed deadlines, rising costs, and poor federal and state coordination have left many proponents disheartened. “The Everglades continues to die, and restoration is not getting any cheaper,” says April Gromnicki, Audubon’s director of ecosystem restoration. “We need to move forward with all due haste.” Adds Brad Sewell, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “I don’t think there is really any measurable progress. There is a lot of ‘Trust us, trust us. We will prioritize restoration.’ But it is talk and not commitments.”
Meanwhile, Florida is picking up the slack. Since it demucked Lake Okeechobee, butterweed, three-square bulrush, and coast cockspur grass have taken hold. When the drought ends and the lake rises again, biologists expect increases in the numbers of birds, including white ibises, tricolored herons, and snowy egrets, and fish, including bass and crappies. The restored areas may also improve habitat for apple snails, an important food for the endangered snail kite.
The 1.9 million cubic yards of material that was moved would fill the Miami Dolphins’ stadium nearly to the top. The plan had been to distribute the nutrient-rich muck to landowners, but elevated levels of arsenic make it unclear what will become of the mounds of material being stored on land near the lake. One hundred fifty tons of phosphorous were removed from the lake’s bottom. But approximately 50,000 tons remain and should be removed, according to Audubon’s Gray. “As a temporary measure this is okay, but this is not how we want to see our lakes managed into the future.”—Ted O’Callahan
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