The Big Cypress Representative from the Seminole Board of Directors, giving us a tour of the canal and pump systems on the Seminole reservation.
We’re back at it for a third week, this time plum-full with exciting meetings (I’m not being sarcastic). We started Monday with Joe Frank, the Big Cypress Representative from the Seminole Board of Directors, and Kent Loftman, hydrologist for the Seminole tribe of Florida. Frank talked to us about the importance of the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP), which has been in planning since 2016. WERP hopes to reconnect the Western Everglades system and restore water inflows into Big Cypress National Park across the Seminole reservation. This will not only provide relief from runoff entering the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries which I discussed last week, but also benefit the Seminole Tribe by allowing them to preserve cultural landmarks while restoring historic ecological conditions to the reservation.
I could understand Joe’s perspective, he was advocating for a project that directly affects the Seminole reservation. When the Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was enacted in 2000, it was projected to take 30 years to complete; current estimates place the project at 50 years. In part, the delay is because CERP is a 50-50 cost share between the state and federal government and requires biennial renewal of spending authorizations from Congress under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). However, from 2008 to 2013 not a single WRDA was passed, slowing down funding for CERP.
Dr. Kristie Wendelberger (front) leading our crew back on the boardwalk after we visited an artificially constructed tree island a part of LILA.
Last week I mentioned that tree islands are biodiversity hotspots critical to the health of the Everglades. That being said, a recent study conducted by the United States Geologic Survey found half have been either been degraded or lost. Well, this week we got to visit artificially constructed tree islands that could change the future of the Everglades.
Bella and Natalie on the Loxahatchee River canoeing trip.
The Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment (LILA) is a study conducted by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and Florida International University (FIU) to measure the effects of water depth and flow rate on artificially constructed tree islands. This study may result in findings that could lead to future tree island reintroductions into the Everglades system. LILA is already showing promise; Brad Schonhoff, Program Manager at FIU’s National Science Foundation’s Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology’s Center for Aquatic Chemistry & Environment, informed us that an alligator had begun nesting at one of the test sites as if to give its stamp of approval on the constructed island. As a bonus, we also got to canoe in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and brave a boardwalk going out to one of the constructed tree islands, both of which were beautiful.
Members of the Water Resources Advisory Council discussing the adoption of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan.
Thursday, we attended the SFWMD’s Water resources Analysis Coalition (WRAC), learning about some of the additional solutions being planned and implemented by the state and federal government to solve ecological problems in the Everglades. Take for instance, the water levels present in Lake Okeechobee. When levels exceed 14.5 feet, it becomes dangerous for both for those living around the lake’s southern perimeter and for the wetland ecosystems lining the lake. Therefore, increased lake water levels mean increased discharge to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, which can disrupt natural salinity levels for native species. That being said, the SFWMD is currently discussing plans for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), which hopes to construct 12,500 acres of shallow storage, 80 aquifer storage and recovery wells, and restore 1,200 acres of Kissimmee River wetland. LOWRP will increase water storage surrounding Lake Okeechobee. This is one of the projects that hopes to help lower water levels in the lake, removing the need to discharge high amounts of water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, improving salinity conditions in the estuaries. Additional storage created by LOWRP if adopted will also improve water supply to South Florida.
A view of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge from the Cypress Swamp boardwalk.
The Loxahatchee River Watershed Restoration Project, which seeks to re-establish 428,000 acres of wetland and sloughs to the region, was also discussed during WRAC, which corresponded perfectly with our trip to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge the day before. Additionally, we met with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Senior Program Manager Kim Taplin, who talked to us about the history of water quality standards in Florida and National Park Conservation Association’s Everglades Restoration Program Manager Cara Capp and Sierra Club Issue Chair Cris Costello, who gave us their stories about how they came to work as environment stewards.
I still consider this internship to be such a blessing and I speak for all of us when I say that this is our comprehensive look at Everglades restoration. Cris said something that resonated with me: “If you like a good fight like I do, join the Sierra Club.” Well we love The Everglades Foundation for the same reason: because the Everglades are worth fighting for and it is our duty to continue its legacy.