Record South Florida rain threatens Glades wildlife

cape sable sparrow in hand

Cape Sable seaside sparrows are among the planet’s most endangered birds and now number less than 3,000 living in Everglades National Park. Emergency high water operations this month threaten to flood nests still containing chicks and eggs. Jenny Staletovich reports (Miami Herald) on how so much rain so early in the wet season has led to crisis across South Florida:

[. . .] To avoid drowning wildlife in the central Everglades, and avoid fouling the Treasure Coast with dirty water from Lake Okeechobee later in the season, the South Florida Water Management District began back-pumping water into the lake over the weekend. Then this week, the U.S. Corps of Engineers opened flood gates into the western Everglades, flooding nesting grounds for the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow for the second year in a row.

The dilemma pits flood control against conservation efforts and while it’s an old battle in Florida, water managers have now faced back-to-back years of emergency operations. [. . .] Just last month, much of the state was under a drought warning, facing threats from wildfires and water shortages. Then the wet season roared in the first week of June, dumping more rain in a week than the amount typically seen for the entire month. The central Everglades got hit the hardest, with 15 inches falling on average.

That filled up the vast conservation areas. Water Conservation Area 3A, the largest of the three straddling Miami-Dade and Broward counties, is now about two feet above where it should be, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Ron Bergeron. On Thursday, Bergeron escorted reporters to a tree island south of Alligator Alley, where his grandfather first built a camp in 1946, to highlight conditions. The problem was obvious as soon as Bergeron, the commission’s Everglades point man, stepped off an airboat with his daughter and onto his partially submerged dock. “This whole environment has a lot to do with our quality of life,” he said. “Nine million people depend on it for their drinking water, so it ain’t no play game.”


The second week of June, after the heavy rain, water started flowing into the conservation area three times faster than it was leaving, Bergeron said. The commission restricted public access to protect stressed wildlife stranded on shrinking tree islands. [. . .]

In 2014, sparrow numbers dropped below 2,915, a critical threshold indicating conditions were off. That required water managers to go back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess how water is moved across nesting grounds. Based on a U.S. Geological Survey study, federal wildlife officials concluded nests needed to be kept dry through July 15 in the western Everglades. The decision to move water into sparrow nesting grounds in the western Everglades comes at a particularly dicey time for the birds. [. . .]

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