Located within central Glades County, Fla., eight miles upstream of the mouth of Fisheating Creek at the western shore of Lake Okeechobee, lies Cowbone Marsh, an approximately 5,500-acre freshwater marsh system. Fisheating Creek, the only remaining free-flowing waterway feeding into the lake, flows through Cowbone Marsh. Most of the surrounding land is either publicly owned or under conservation easements that restrict development, making it one of the most valuable aquatic and wildlife resource areas in the country.
Lykes Brothers, a company that owned most of the land in Glades County, acquired the land around Fisheating Creek in the early 1900s. For years, the company allowed public access to Fisheating Creek and the surrounding land, which included a campground. In the 1980s, Lykes Brothers closed public access to its land along the creek and obstructed access to the creek by boats.
By 1989, a non-profit organization, Save Our Creeks, and others challenged the Lykes Brothers ability to restrict public access. At the heart of the matter was whether or not Fisheating Creek was considered a navigable waterway, in which case it was considered a water of the state of Florida. A landmark 1998 state court decision ruled the stream navigable and Lykes Brothers agreed to a settlement.
As part of the settlement, the state purchased approximately 18,000 acres along the stream, which became the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. The state also bought a conservation easement on more than 41,000 acres of Lykes Brothers land and agreed to maintain a navigation channel in Fisheating Creek from Lake Okeechobee to the U. S. Route 27 bridge at Palmdale.
The state of Florida planned to establish Fisheating Creek as a high water channel, meaning that during the wet season, Cowbone Marsh would be filled with water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District met with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff to explain that under the Clean Water Act, the Corps regulates the discharge of fill in waters of the United States, including many wetlands and, specifically, Cowbone Marsh.
Throughout a period of more than 50 years, the Fisheating Creek channel within Cowbone Marsh had filled in with vegetation. After the FWC acquired the property, they hired a contractor to spray and then cut through the vegetation with a mechanical earth-moving machine known as a “cookie-cutter.” This created a large navigational channel resulting in increased water flow out of Cowbone Marsh, draining much of its 5,500 acres. The dredged material was sidecast into the marsh. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, such discharges are regulated by the Corps. In July 2010, before the work was completed, Jacksonville District’s Regulatory Division issued a cease and desist order and referred the matter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
EPA ordered interim corrective action and in an attempt to repair the damage, the state chose check dams and weirs to keep the creek open to navigation; however, this was soon deemed ineffective in retaining water in the marsh even during the dry season, and efforts redoubled to determine the permanent solution to restoring the marsh. The FWC then proposed to refill the navigation channel, using clean sand as fill. Nearly two miles of channel needed to be filled. But how would the fill material get to this remote area? Options included helicopter transport, piping pumped material up Fisheating Creek from a local mine, trucking material to the local FWC office and pumping it from there or trucking it into the site.
FWC chose to borrow the sand from a suitable nearby area and truck it to the channel. To access the channel, they proposed to construct a unique and innovative floating mat roadway across the marsh. The mats will reduce the impacts of truck traffic and will be removed once the channel restoration work is complete. The state is preparing to restore the site during a limited, five-month environmental window, between November and April.
“This area is an incredible resource,” said Theresa Hudson, chief of Regulatory Division’s enforcement section. “Fisheating Creek is the only free-flowing tributary into Lake Okeechobee and represents nine percent of watershed to the lake. Cowbone Marsh is incredibly important to water quality, as it is a filter marsh for everything upstream – the last big filter on the way to Okeechobee.”
Because Cowbone Marsh is a peat marsh, explained Hudson, it responds like a sponge. Without water, the soil dries out and collapses, which reduces its capacity to store fresh water for human and wildlife use. During the dry season, it can then be susceptible to burning and it will dehydrate without the restoration.
Cynthia Ovdenk, project manager, coordinated the review and ensured that all federal laws were followed.
“Decreased water levels contribute to decreased numbers of beneficial insects and an unproductive wildlife food chain,” explained Ovdenk. “Cowbone Marsh is an excellent wildlife habitat. Wading birds of all types - ibis, herons, egrets, wood storks, roseate spoonbills - as well as hawks, osprey, and owls are common. Several bald eagle nests are located in the area. Warblers are abundant during fall and spring migrations. River otters are common, and alligators are ubiquitous. One American crocodile was recently confirmed in the area.”
Cowbone Marsh has been an important staging area for swallow-tailed kites before their migration to South America in August. In April and May, they nest and raise their young along Fisheating Creek. The communal roosting area of Cowbone Marsh may at times be used by half of the U.S. population of swallow-tailed kites. The federally endangered Audubon's crested caracara and Florida sandhill cranes may be seen on the prairies, depression marshes and on the adjacent conservation easement land.
In 1973, working for the World Wildlife Fund, Roy McBride and his hounds treed an aged Florida panther female nearby, confirming that panthers still existed in Florida. At the time, the Florida panther was among the most endangered animals in the world. Since then, several young males have been documented dispersing from the core population area to the south through Fisheating Creek. The area may become even more important to the Florida panther as its population continues to expand.
The area is also an important cultural resource to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It holds historic properties, including mounds, and was traversed by the U.S. Army during the second Seminole War.
“With wildlife, cultural resources and clean water issues, this was a complex process that required collaboration and the cooperation of all agencies,” said Ovdenk. “With the efforts of the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we successfully reduced the time to reach a permit decision down to one month. This is obviously a resource that many care about and want to help preserve.”