Everglades Restoration (CERP- the IRL in particular)

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Joan B

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on: March 07, 2006, 07:41:09 PM
Hello native plant people,

Recently our chapter heard a very good presentation about the IRL plan --that's the Indian River Lagoon plan-- currently before Congress (the Senate now).The focus was natural wetlands. I thought FNPS members would appreciate the information. Here is Maggy Hurchalla's talk to us. (Feb 28, 2006)

Regards, Joan B

The IRL Plan and their Natural Areas

   I want to tell you a mostly happy story about looking to nature for soft solutions, and finding them.
Our IRL Plan (Indian River Lagoon) is one of 60 odd projects that make up the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration (CERP). It is the first of the CERP projects to be finished and signed and sealed with all the bells and whistles required by Congress. It has completed NEPA review, been signed by the Chief of Engineers, and has been approved by the Office of Management and Budget and the House of Representatives. It is included in the Water Resources Development Act which was unanimously endorsed by the Senate Committee. We have high hopes that the Water Resources Bill will come to the Senate floor in May and be passed. 82 senators have asked Sen. Frist to schedule floor time for the bill.
What is so very special about all this is that it may be the first major Corps project that actually makes more habitat and makes more wetlands.   We have realized in this area that there are two sources of the problems afflicting our river: THEM and US.

   We know all about THEM. We love to throw rocks at the SFWMD and the Corps for dumping Lake Okeechobee water into our river. It doesn’t belong there. God didn’t make it that way. Engineers did. There is no natural waterway connecting the Lake and the east coast. There never was. The dumping of the Lake through the St. Lucie Canal is our big problem in very wet years.

   It has come as an awful shock to find out that if they stopped dumping the Lake tomorrow, the river would still die. It’s much more fun to throw rocks at them than it is to look in the mirror at the villain. Our own regional watershed in Martin County and St. Lucie County dumps river killing freshwater and nutrients every summer. They are not as dramatic as the Lake discharges, but they are deadly. They are responsible for a significant amount of the black ooze on the bottom of the river. The St. Lucie Canal (C44) and C23 (at the county line) and C24 (passing through Pt. St. Lucie) overflow to the estuary every year. God didn’t make it that way. Engineers did. DEP now refers to the “annual fish kill” in the North Fork of the St. Lucie which occurs when the rainy season starts in earnest and C23 and C24 overflow to the river.

The IRL Plan is about doing something about us; the basin discharges from our immediate region.
   It is part of the greater Everglades Plan because the canals that drain the basin are part of the C&SF Flood Control Project authorized in 1948 to dry out South Florida.

   In 1992 when Congress initiated Everglades Restoration their orders to the Corps were to repair the environmental destruction caused by the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project. Our three big basin canals are C&SF canals. The IRL Plan is about fixing the damage they have caused.
We are frequently reminded by the Corps that they did this damage at the request of the State of Florida. That’s true. The state and its leaders begged for drainage after it rained over 100 inches in South Florida in 1947. We’ve had a lot of rain since 1996 when the current spate of Lake dumping and river killing cranked up. But so far these years that agencies said were unexpected and too wet to plan for have not met the rainfall records of 1947. I can tell you that one day it will rain over 100 inches again.

Florida is a land of rainfall extremes, not of averages. And the big trouble with Florida is that it’s so flat that when it rains too much a lot of land that people wanted to be dry gets wet.
   Even back in the late forties when most people thought that draining South Florida would save it instead of killing it, some people knew better. One of them was our own Ernie Lyons, long time editor of the Stuart News.

   Let me read you an excerpt from Mike Grunwald’s new book “Swamp” about the History of the Everglades and the Saving of the Everglades. He quotes Ernie Lyons column in 1948 on the subject of the C&SF project:

“South Florida started with a marvelous flood control plan. Nature designed it. It consisted of vast perpetually inundated marshes and lakes interconnected by sloughs. It was a paradise for wildlife and, more practically, a sensible system of shallow reservoirs in which rainfall was stored to slowly seep into the ground. But being human, we just couldn’t leave it alone…During dry seasons, private individuals farmed or built in areas where old timers knew inundation was as inevitable as death and taxes. Then when the rains came, we called on Government to take over and operate, with sweeping alterations, the maginificent system God had given us… Now we are calling on Government to be the very God, by the creation of a huge artificial system  of dams, pumps, man made lakes and controls which must be maintained in perpetuity… Nature’s last frontier of wildlife and last giant units of natural flood control would be destroyed. And Florida would be repeating the folly which conservationists watched ruin rivers, make droughts and create floods across the nation.
   Conservationists know the cure for this evil. Save the swampland as vast natural reservoirs. Quit being so land hungry that nature is left no place to store rainfall. Restore the marshes and little brooks. Cooperate with nature instead of trying to take all and give nothing.”

   Ernie got it right. Most everybody else got it wrong and the massive South Florida flood control project went forward. It didn’t drain as well as it was supposed to. There was still too much water around with no good place to put it. It drained better than it meant to. In the 1960s the Everglades started burning and wouldn’t stop. It came real close with killing Lake Okeechobee and real close to killing the St. Lucie River. Because of Ernie and the founding members of the Conservation Alliance, they never completed the drainage canals they had planned for us.

But now we do have a happier story unfolding. We are actually trying to save and restore the Everglades. The Corps has admitted in writing in the IRL Plan that our estuary is headed toward irrevocable collapse because of bad water management practices.

Now it’s time to get the water right.

The larger CERP Plan adopted by Congress in 2000 had goals to assure that it wouldn’t be just another plumbing scheme. One of the overarching goals of CERP is to “expand the areal extent of short hydroperiod wetlands.”

What does that mean and why do we care?

Short hydroperiod wetlands are wet in the summer and dry in the winter. Their hydroperiod, the time they are wet,  is short. They are also called ephemeral ponds and isolated wetlands, though when the big rains come they widen out and flow together. Fly over western Martin County and it looks like lots and lots of puddles in the pinewoods of every shape and size. Originally, except for a few ridges and always wet marshes, all of backwoods Martin County was made up of short hydroperiod wetlands surrounded by pine and palmetto.

And what are they good for? They reflect sunrise and sunset beautifully. For the more practical minded they hold water – like Ernie said, a sensible system of shallow reservoirs that hold water while it slowly seeps into the ground.

And without them there would be no wading birds.
If you are a wood ibis you grope for your food. Your pink toes attract critters and your big bill snaps at them. That feeding method doesn’t work very well in the open waters of a big lake or river. You need a concentrated food source to grope successfully. And even the elegant egrets with well aimed stabs need lots of protein in one place to make eggs and raise babies.

Enter the hero of the story – the short hydroperiod wetland. It pulses. In the summer it may spread out to five acres and convert lots of sunshine into living things. In the winter it shrinks down and the living things get concentrated in a space no bigger than a room. In November and December the rains stop. In December and January the littlest wetlands draw down and concentrate minnow and crayfish and worms into a wading bird supermarket. Each month bigger wetlands dry down and keep the food source available. In May the last big wetlands dry down to feed the big babies who are about to fly.

The biggest piece of the Everglades that we have lost forever is not it’s heart. The sawgrass center still looks the same. We have lost the edges. We have lost them irrevocably to urban development in Dade and Broward and Palm Beach counties.There is no place left for the shallow little reservoirs in pine prairies that feed the wading birds in nesting season.

But short hydroperiod wetlands are still there and still restorable in the western  pastures of Palm  Beach and St. Lucie counties. Getting the water right for the larger Everglades meant replacing the shallow edges and the IRL Plan presented an opportunity for adaptive management. That was the phrase for making CERP work better to meet all its goals by improving strategies in individual projects.
When the IRL Plan was first outline it was simply a plumbing scheme. There would big reservoirs and big pumps. When too much water was going to the estuary they would pump. When the rains slacked off they would release water more slowly to the estuary. It was not about reducing discharges, but about attenuating them

The  IRL team set out, as seriously as any government group ever did, to make the environment better. They looked at nutrient loads to the estuary and the limited ability of reservoirs to remove pollutants. They added stormwater treatment areas to clean up the attenuated runoff before it went back to the estuary. They rejected the idea of siting one big reservoir on the Allapattah Save Our Rivers land. It was too environmentally valuable to destroy with a big ugly reservoir.

Then they looked to nature to see if it could help. They looked to the natural areas like Allapattah to see what happened to the runoff if you put things back the way they were. They looked at Ernie Lyons idea: “Save the swamplands as vast natural reservoirs.”

They came up with a plan that was much more effective than plain plumbing. It contains three major reservoirs with attached treatment areas on C44, C23 and C24. It includes 92,000 acres in the two counties for Natural Areas.

Those areas are not, as some have suggested, an “environmental frill.” They are a “three fer”. It provides environment, storage and nutrient removal. The exciting thing about the IRL Planning process is that, for the first time, there were hydrological models available to test the idea that nature can help.

Yes, you get habitat preservation and expansion and without that CERP cannot meet its goal to be consistent with the Species Recovery Plan for threatened and endangered species. Habitat is the key to survival.

Yes. You get preservation and expansion of short hydroperiod wetlands. There are not a lot of places in South Florida left where that can be accomplished. Stop the drainage and put the water back and the wetlands will double in area.

But you also get storage. With the Natural Areas at work, doing what they used to do, the Plan needs one less 30,000 acre foot reservoir with all its pumps and fuel and maintenance costs. Natural Areas don’t just hold the water and send it back to the river at a slower rate. They actually reduce the annual volume of runoff. The more it rains, the more area is covered by shallow wetlands and the more evaporation takes place. It’s a great mechanism. When it rains a whole lot it throws water away to the sky. When you have drought years the wetlands shrink and evapotransipiration is greatly reduced.

You need one less 5000 acre artificial stormwater treatment area because the Natural Areas remove 20,000 kg a year of phosphorous that is presently going into the estuary.

The Natural Area strategy does it very simply. You don’t pump water to Natural Areas to store it. You just stop draining those areas. You put the hydroperiods back the way they were by blocking the little drainage ditches that criss- cross even the wilder pastures out there. Restore the water, remove the exotics, restore the fire regime, and native habitat will return. Restore the native plants and the natural water pulses and the runoff will be like it used to be – much less of it; much cleaner; and much slower to run off.

Could this be done just by buying easements on pasture lands? Unfortunately not. Pasture grass has different runoff characteristics than native vegetation. Fertilizer and cow patties add to the nutrient runoff. Cows can’t survive in natural areas when the water is really high. They get foot rot. Ranching is an attractive and undemanding alternative to urban development, but it does not and cannot supply the benefits of Natural Areas.

It can be done by buying the land and restoring it. It is being done.

There are three large Natural Areas in the Plan surrounding lands designated for Save Our Rivers purchases. In St. Lucie County the Trail Ridge and Cypress Creek SOR projects are the core of the big Natural Area in the Sw part of the county. In Martin County the Natural Area adds 20,000 acres around Allapattah Ranch. The third area connects the lands above Palmar to the land in the headwaters of the South Fork

In Martin County we have already purchased 39000 acres of the land necessary for the IRL Plan. 12000 acres is for a reservoir and STAs on C44 and the rest is the 20,000 acre Allapattah Ranch and the Seawind property around the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. We have 32,000 acres left we need to acquire.

From the Congressional perspective it looks good. We really think we can get authorization this year.
There are some challenges.

The SFWMD has stopped buying land for the IRL in Martin County. They need to be urged to finish the job. If they wait 10 or 15 years, the land won’t be there. Hopefully Congressional authorization will help them reconsider their freeze on land acquisition.

On the plus side, a draft report by the federal Everglades Restoration Task Force list four CERP projects as the top priority for federal land acquisition funds for CERP. The IRL project is one of the four.

On the minus side we are facing an initiative to change land use in the western part of Martin County. It is currently limited so that it cannot be subdivided into lots smaller than  20 acres. The Land Pattern Study the County is considering will propose changes to those requirements.

The larger issues of that study are a political firestorm I wouldn’t ask you to get involved in.

There is a specific problem for the IRL. If land owners that control the 32,000 acres have reason to hope for higher density and more generous land use options, they are not going to sell their land for the IRL. They will hold on ‘til they find out what the new rules are.  The study will be complete in November, but it will not include a recommendation as to what to do. That will take more time. Then the process of changing the Comprehensive Plan will take longer still. We may lose the chance to acquire land for 4 or 5 years. We may end up paying higher prices.

Luckily, that problem can be fixed, even if the Board votes on March 7 to go forward with the study. All it takes is a condition in the contract that states that the consultant will not propose any alternatives that will increase the price per acre of land necessary for the IRL Plan.

If we get past those challenges we have the potential for something that has never happened in my 65 years in Florida. We can make things better instead of worse. We can not just hang on to the remnants of what we have. We can actually expand and improve significant amounts of natural  habitat with all its flora and all its creatures great and small.

That’s a happy vision.