The birds fly gracefully around the canal on this late April day, occasionally dipping their beaks to the water, perhaps in search of some prey. A few miles up the road, sounds of airboats fill the air. Everyone, it seems, is enjoying the water in south Florida.
At the same time, on a college campus in Davie, representatives from a host of state and federal agencies discussed how to manage that water during extreme wet weather events, with special focus on Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) 1, 2, and 3 in the heart of the Everglades.
The meeting was timed in advance of the upcoming wet season, and featured representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, the South Florida Water Management District, Everglades National Park, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.
“Stakeholder involvement is vitally important to management of the system,” said Lt. Col. Tom Greco, deputy commander for south Florida. “We wanted to provide attendees with a clear understanding of the system’s capabilities and constraints while also exchanging ideas on how to best handle extreme events.”
Such an event occurred last August, when Tropical Storm Isaac dumped massive amounts of rain in south Florida. The influx of water caused levels in Lake Okeechobee and the water conservation areas to rise rapidly. At one point, the rising water caused major concerns for wildlife, as it was creating islands in the water conservation areas and trapping animals. However, officials worked together to make the emergency adjustments necessary to avoid any major catastrophes to the wildlife population.
“We wanted to exchange information about what occurred in the WCAs over the last six months,” said John Kilpatrick, chief of the Multi-Project Branch, which oversees water management operations. “We wanted to identify our strategies, the likely water levels for the rainy season, and how we should respond in the event of another high water situation.”
It’s been a busy dry season for water managers, as they have been meeting regularly with agencies, groups and individuals wanting to learn more about the Corps’ water management practices. Meetings were conducted with stakeholders in Fort Myers and Stuart in January to discuss last fall’s series of water releases from Lake Okeechobee after Isaac caused a four-foot spike in water levels.
“The feedback showed the Jacksonville team does a tremendous job balancing multiple needs across the system,” said Greco. “While some stakeholders may not always like our decisions, they certainly understand we make them with the broadest public interest and safety in mind.”
A different challenge facing water managers this year surrounds Lake Okeechobee and a higher water level this year, when compared to the previous two years. On April 23, the lake level was 13.59 feet, more than two feet higher than it was on the same date in 2011 and 2012. The lake has stayed within the Corps’ preferred range of 12.5 and 15.5 feet all winter. As a result, the district has been able to provide regular discharges of water to meet a wide variety of needs, including releases to the Caloosahatchee Estuary to keep the saltwater-freshwater mix in an acceptable range.
“Water releases will likely continue through May and June,” said Kilpatrick. “Maximum water is also being moved south through stormwater treatment areas and to the WCAs.”
With the dry season nearly complete, the focus now shifts to hurricane season and what it might have in store.
“There are so many uncertainties,” said Kilpatrick. “We could see a busy hurricane season and get hit with multiple storms, or it could be slow. Whatever happens, we will continue to manage the lake and the WCAs, using their respective water management plans.”
Public safety will continue to be the highest priority.
“Managing water in Florida is a team effort,” said Greco. “Jacksonville District’s water managers make outstanding decisions to properly manage the system we have. Our project managers, planners, engineers and a vast support team are working diligently to make the system better for Florida and the nation.”