Audubon Florida has been hard at work, and over the last month, some significant victories have materialized in the shape of increased federal funding for Everglades restoration, major milestones for two critical restoration projects, and a major shift in water management that is giving Lake Okeechobee a fighting chance at recovery.
EAA Reservoir work to begin 18 months earlier
Last week, the South Florida Water Management District filed permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to begin construction on the water cleaning components of the EAA Reservoir project. Starting construction on this critical Everglades restoration project in October put the District a year and a half ahead than originally scheduled. This is exciting and welcomed good news. While the rest of the project is built, this smaller component will help augment the capacity to send freshwater flows south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay now.
"Kudos to the South Florida Water Management District for pushing to begin work for canals to serve the future Everglades reservoir," said Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director at Audubon Florida. "This urgently needed project has a lot of moving parts and will take time to complete as South Florida can ill-afford any delays. The Governor and the Florida Legislature provided real leadership this year with historic appropriations to Everglades Restoration, and Audubon is thrilled to see the District translating this urgency into action."
Together with other authorized projects, the EAA Reservoir will send an annual average of approximately 370,000 additional acre-feet of clean water south to the Southern Everglades and Florida Bay. It will also reduce the number of damaging discharge events from Lake Okeechobee to the northern estuaries by 63 percent when used in conjunction with authorized projects. Congress authorized the EAA Reservoir Project in the Water Resources Development Act of 2018. Audubon was instrumental in getting this project authorized and getting this project fully funded remains a top priority.
U.S. House Energy & Water bill includes $200M for Everglades restoration
Everglades restoration depends on healthy and sustained funding from Congress and from the Florida Legislature. Thanks to the tireless work of Audubon Florida and the Everglades community, two weeks ago the U.S. House Appropriations Committee allocated a historic $200 million in Fiscal Year 2020 for Everglades restoration. This is excellent news for America’s Everglades and the hundreds of bird species that call this place home.
The $200 million investment will leverage Florida’s $360 million appropriation for Everglades restoration in the coming fiscal year. This level of funding is critical to accelerate the pace of Everglades restoration. We are poised to turn this significant investment into solid deliverables, including finishing a number of projects under construction and beginning work on the recently authorized EAA Reservoir to diminish harmful water releases into the northern estuaries and send water south into a parched Everglades National Park.
The Appropriations bill is expected to be heard on the House floor sometime this month. Read Audubon Florida’s thank you letter to the members of the Appropriations committees.
Final phase of Tamiami Trail bridging receives full funding
Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Florida $60 million to complete Everglades restoration work along the Tamiami Trail Highway (U.S. Route 41). Combined with the $40 million allocated by the Florida Legislature, the Tamiami Trail Modification Next Step Phase II restoration project is now fully funded. This critical restoration project provides the foundation to increase the level of freshwater flows into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay envisioned in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
The Tamiami Trail Highway (U.S. 41) was finished in 1928. This road transecting the Everglades has acted as a dam since its inception, physically obstructing the flow of water into the southern portion of the Everglades ecosystem. A one-mile, elevated bridge was inaugurated in 2013, and a second 2.6-mile bridge was completed in late 2018. The $100 million awarded by DOT and the Florida Legislature will complete the last and final phase of this project—repaving of the unabridged segments of U.S. 41 and installing a series of massive concrete culverts between the new bridges.
“This is excellent news!” said Celeste De Palma, Director of Everglades Policy at Audubon Florida. “Completing the Tamiami Trail Next Steps project is a significant victory in our efforts to connect Florida Bay to its historic sources of freshwater in Lake Okeechobee. Today is a historic day for Everglades restoration and once this project is complete, we will see the fruits of our 30-year old labor to get this project across the finish line.”
A fighting chance for the liquid heart of the Everglades
Lake Okeechobee has been taking a pounding from excess nutrients and successive years of high water levels. In 2017, Hurricane Irma delivered the knockout punch raising lake levels by three feet in just a month, adding record amounts of nutrients that fueled algae blooms and drowned miles of nutrient-absorbing, water-filtering, aquatic vegetation and critical marsh habitat for birds. This one-two punch of nutrients and high water left the lake on the proverbial mat. However, following recommendations by Audubon Florida’s science and policy experts, this year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to pursue lowering lake levels to promote recovery of lake ecology.
With lake levels receding to 11 feet, sunlight is now reaching seedlings on the lake’s bottom, spurring new vegetation to sprout. Under normal conditions, lake levels should range between 12 feet at the end of the dry season and 15 feet at the end of the wet season. However, keeping lake levels at 11 feet for a few months this year only can help restore the marsh’s habitat for wildlife and improve water quality. With a little bit of help from Mother Nature, Lake Okeechobee will reclaim its title as the “Liquid Heart” of the Everglades.