The South Florida Water Management District was granted emergency permission today to back pump clean water into Lake Okeechobee to save animals and plants in bloated water conservation areas.
District spokesman Randy Smith, said the district had hoped to avoid the back pumping by opening flood gates that would allow excess water to flow south into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
But that option has so far been blocked to protect the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, Smith said.
“The obvious solution, the quick solution, is to open the gates and let it go into the park,” Smith said. “That is the logical thing to do to provide immediate relief, but so far we’ve gotten no response from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”
The back pumping into Lake Okeechobee is scheduled to being at 7 a.m. Saturday. The lake stood at 12.25 feet Friday, just below the comfort zone of between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level.
The 16-county region managed by the district has received an average of 13.43 inches of rain this month. That’s more than 7.38 inches above what’s normal.
Ron Bergeron, a commissioner with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, called the overflow of water “catastrophic.”
“What is going on is probably the greatest event I’ve ever seen in my 45 years of overseeing this,” Bergeron said.
In an order signed Friday, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection said the district could deviate from water regulations to alleviate bloated conditions in its water conservation area 3A. The water level in the conservation area rose by more than 2 feet this month.
“High water levels inundate tree islands and other wildlife habitats, and if sustained, will cause stress and loss of life particularly for birds and mammals,” the DEP order says. “This also poses an immediate threat and impact to valuable natural resources that underpin local economies that surround the Everglades Protection Area. Loss of natural resources will lead to losses in outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as ecotourism and related economic benefits.”
Smith said the water being pumped north into Lake Okeechobee has been treated.
“This is not the old style of just grabbing water from wherever,” he said.