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Getting Water Right

By Dr. Paul Julian, Biogeochemist & Dr. Khandker Ishtiaq, Hydrologist

Excerpt from The Everglades Foundation Science Insider, Summer 2023, Volume 8

The beauty of the Everglades lies in its remarkable ecological diversity spanning from the smallest algae eaters to giant, big-mouth alligators. The slow-moving water—that once moved through the river of grass, injecting jubilance into the life of its residents—was heavily altered over the past century for water supply, flood control, and agriculture. “Getting the water right” by managing the quality, quantity, timing, and distribution of the freshwater deliveries to the Everglades is the only solution to bring this ‘lost life’ back to its joyous, rejuvenated self.

Water resources management is defined as the process of planning, developing, and managing water resources for both quantity and quality across all water uses. Throughout South Florida, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primarily manage water for drinking and irrigation, flood protection, recreation, and the environment.

Waterworks Across the Everglades

South Florida receives on average 50 to 60 inches of rain annually, and that water is managed using the outdated Central and Southern Florida Project. Beginning in the mid-20th century, construction began on this project to manage water through a series of canals and control structures for navigation and flood protection.

The Central and Southern Florida Project extends across the Everglades, starting in the northern Kissimmee Chain-of-Lakes. There, summer rains fill the lakes, which are gradually moved south to Lake Okeechobee. Once there, water is used for irrigation or released east to the St. Lucie River Estuary and Lake Worth Lagoon or west to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary. South of the lake, in the Everglades Agricultural Area, runoff of irrigation water flows to the Everglades Protection Area and finally Florida Bay.

Fifty years after it was conceived, it was clear the Central and Southern Florida Project needed an overhaul. The Everglades was suffering from too little freshwater in many areas, while other places had too much. Plus, the water quality and timing of its delivery left a lot of room for improvement.

In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was passed into law, aiming to improve water management and move more clean water south for restoration by:

Lake Okeechobee

The liquid heart of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, is seeing some changes. Although not specifically part of CERP, water levels in Lake Okeechobee are managed by a regulation schedule that dictates when, where, and how much water is discharged from the lake. Soon, the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule of 2008 will be replaced by the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). This updated schedule aims to manage the lake’s water better, maintain water supply, and improve the health of the surrounding ecosystems.

Discharges from the lake south are destined for one of two fates: one as irrigation for agriculture in the Everglades Agricultural Area, and the other to the Everglades. However, before entering the Everglades, water must be cleansed, since nutrient concentrations, specifically phosphorus, are too high for these ecosystems.

Central Everglades

Despite its connections to the Central and Southern Florida Project, portions of the Everglades ecosystem suffer from too little water. Restoration projects like the Central Everglades Planning Project (a major component of CERP) intend to redistribute water to areas that need it most. The tools at our disposal to manage water and restore the Everglades are conveyance features that move water like canals, pumps, and gated structures, and also projects like reservoirs, aquifer storage and recovery, flow-equalization basins, and stormwater treatment areas. Projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir will be used to store and treat vitally important water in times of plenty, such as the wet season, and deliver it to areas that are parched during the dry season.

We could have all the projects and infrastructure in the world, but we still need to know how and when to operate them to effectively manage and restore the Everglades. Water control plans like the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual and the Combined Operational Plan for the Central Everglades were developed to manage water in the Everglades to maximize ecological benefits. By providing “rules,” we can ensure the right quantity, timing, and distribution of water across the system.

8.5 Square Mile Area Groundbreaking

Estuaries and Coastal Ecosystems

The stunning estuary ecosystems lining our coasts rely on a delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater. Therefore, some balanced freshwater discharges are needed for these ecosystems to function, and to also fight back saltwater intrusion and the effects of sea level rise.

Saltwater intrusion is primarily caused by rising seas that cause a front of saltwater to push the freshwater line upward and inward. The Everglades is currently experiencing an accelerated rate of sea level rise projected to reach 2 to 2.5 meters by the end of this century. With increasing demands for water, excessive pumping of groundwater aggravates saltwater intrusion, while delivering more freshwater into the aquifer can combat it. Unless the rate of saltwater intrusion in the Everglades is mitigated by pushing more freshwater into the wetlands or decreasing our water use, the Everglades' vulnerability to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion will be exacerbated.

Fortunately, a CERP project currently is in the planning process: the Biscayne Bay and Southeastern Everglades Ecosystem Restoration (BBSEER) project, which aims to restore Biscayne Bay and the southeast Everglades wetlands, among others. In addition to bringing more freshwater to these wetlands, the project also focuses on improving nearshore salinity levels. For the first time, this CERP project is considering resiliency to sea level rise and saltwater intrusion in its planning.

Sustainable Water Management

Sustainable water management is needed for the health of both the environment and

the needs of humans. Balanced and optimal freshwater discharges to the estuaries build resilience in a system that is already on a knife’s edge from pressures ranging from pollution to sea level rise. Freshwater discharges flowing south through the Everglades

and into Florida Bay are needed to hydrate these wetlands and keep sea level rise and its effects at bay. A resilient system is a happy system that fosters healthy wildlife

populations, beautiful vistas, and countless ecosystem services.


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