With Hurricane Irma behind us, it remains a reminder of the power of nature. Audubon scientists and volunteers are in the process of assessing and surveying the impacts to South Florida.
Some of the reports are sad. The University of Florida reported that 44 Everglade Snail Kite active nests on Lake Okeechobee were lost due to Irma’s high winds and heavy rainfall.
Other reports are more optimistic. Florida Bay suffered less damage than was originally anticipated. While mats of dead seagrass initially covered the Bay, determinations are still being made about ecological harm.
So what lessons did Irma teach us about the Everglades and restoration?
1. Protecting and restoring wetlands is essential.
Half of the Everglades' historic wetlands have been lost to development. But the remaining wetlands helped lessen the impact of Irma on populated areas. Defending the state policy of "no net loss" of wetlands and completing wetlands projects like those that will restore 55,000 acres of wetlands in Picayune Strand and restore Cape Sable at the tip of the Florida Peninsula are more important than ever. Read more about the value of wetlands during hurricanes from Audubon’s Celeste De Palma’s op-ed published in the Miami Herald.
2. The Everglades needs more water storage and conveyance projects.
The current limits to storing and moving water through the Everglades left few options and little flexibility for moving water in advance of Irma's anticipated storm surge and rainfall. This is why projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir advanced in Senate Bill 10 (2017) and the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) are so urgent. Read more about exciting progress on these projects.
3. Holding Lake Okeechobee higher year-round is dangerous.
Pressure to hold more water in Lake Okeechobee has been proposed as an alternative to building additional water storage infrastructure outside of the lake. But when water levels in the lake reach 16 feet, vegetation in Audubon’s Lake Okeechobee Sanctuaries and the lake’s marshes begin to die. In addition to ecosystem damage, higher lake levels raise concerns about the safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Overall, as a result of Hurricane Irma, the lake rose more than 3.5 feet in one month. And despite the fact that lake levels in advance of Hurricane Irma were unusually low for this time of year, this one storm brought the lake’s water levels above 17 feet- its highest level since 2005. Damaging discharges to coastal estuaries have begun in an attempt to reduce water levels in the lake. If water levels in the lake were even higher as the storm approached, the impacts on the Lake’s ecosystem, coastal estuaries, and threats to the Herbert Hoover Dike would have been even more severe and recovery even more difficult. Read more on the ecological damages caused by high water levels in Lake Okeechobee from Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray.
Climate change will continue to bring extreme weather patterns. Prudent water management must consider the increasingly difficult challenges ahead and plan for stronger storms. Hurricane Irma has helped bring focus to implementing Everglades restoration storage options and wetland expansion projects that will enhance South Florida’s resiliency.