Hurricane effects on wildlife in FLA – 10/27/2004

  • October 1, 2013 at 6:01 pm #602

    Hi all
    I’m out of the loop for a few more days but I’m sending this from
    Sigrid in Florida. This article can be verified at Palm Beach Post
    Newspaper; on line.
    I can barely wait to get back to “our work”
    Best to all

    Hurricanes flood Lake Okeechobee, experts fear long-term problems
    Associated Press Writer

    ON THE WATERS OF LAKE OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Standing on an airboat,
    state biologist Donald Fox surveyed the dying bare stalks peeking
    out of the coffee-brown lake water.

    This past summer, Fox said, the vegetation here was so lush and
    thick it could conceal a boat of duck hunters — the result of four
    years of intense conservation efforts. But four hurricanes in six
    weeks shredded the plants, left the water several feet too high and
    chased off small wading birds, who need shallow water to forage for

    “Basically, we’re back to square one,” Fox said. “It was very

    Lake Okeechobee felt the effects of all four hurricanes that swept
    over Florida in August and September. The lake took direct hits from
    Frances and Jeanne, a near hit from Charley, which drenched the
    Kissimmee basin that drains into the lake, and was soaked again by
    the remnants of Ivan.

    The same winds and rain that left at least 83 people dead in Florida
    and caused an estimated $18 billion in insured losses ravaged the
    lake. Winds at least 79 mph and devastating storm surges left the
    shoreline littered with carcasses of alligators, fish and birds.

    The storms also flooded the lake’s tributaries, which caused the
    lake level to rise about a foot a week from 12.8 feet before
    Charley, which hit southwestern Florida on Aug. 13, to a crest of
    just over 18 feet.

    The lake, the second largest freshwater lake within the contiguous
    United States behind Lake Michigan, is critical to the health of the
    Everglades and is commonly known as the state’s “liquid heart.”

    The combined effect of flooding and other damage could wipe out an
    entire generation of the lake’s prized game fish — black crappie and
    large mouth bass, Fox said. Sport fishing brings in $100 million
    annually to the economically depressed area.

    “The worst thing that can happen for the environment in this area is
    what happened,” said David Bogardus, a field officer for the World
    Wildlife Fund.

    Lake Okeechobee is surrounded by the 143-mile Herbert Hoover dike.
    The earthen dike, standing up to 45 feet high, was built in the
    1950s in part to prevent another disaster such as the 1928
    hurricane, when flooding and storm surge from the lake killed more
    than 2,000 people.

    But the dike also prevents the lake from expanding into its natural
    flood plain. Instead, the water level rises, drowning plants that
    provide a habitat for fish and stabilize the lake bottom.

    The lake was intentionally kept at a higher level, around 16 feet,
    throughout most of the 1990s because it was used for flood control
    and a backup water supply for heavily populated southeastern Florida.

    That killed much of the bulrush, hydrilla, eelgrass and other
    plants, to the detriment of the game fish. After four years of
    conservation efforts — which began with lowering of the lake level —
    the plants were recovering.

    “It’s kind of like building a pasture,” Fox said. “You put the grass
    on it before you put the cows on it.”

    As a result, the fish and bird populations were rebounding,
    including endangered species such as the snail kite bird.

    “Things were just getting perfect,” Fox said.

    Then the hurricanes hit, and the water level rose again. The storms
    also churned up sediment and phosphorus on the lake bottom, which
    makes the water a thick muddy brown and blocks light to vegetation

    Many plants were ripped up and left in the lake to rot. In some
    areas, the plants are decomposing underwater. The air smells of
    methane, like a dairy barn, and the water is thick like stew.

    No plants or animals that need oxygen can live there, Fox said, and
    it could take months or years to recover.

    State and federal officials are working to lower the water level by
    releasing water through the lake’s only two outlets — east to the
    Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico.

    At its peak, the lake was taking in 40,000 cubic feet of water per
    second, said Susan Sylvester, water management technical specialist
    for the Army Corps of Engineers. That would fill an Olympic-sized
    swimming pool in about three seconds.

    The lake can only drain about 15,000 cubic feet of water per second,
    she said. Recently water managers have been able to release more
    water than was coming in, Sylvester said. “We feel like we’re
    catching up.”

    But it’s a delicate balance. They can’t release too much water at
    once, because that could damage the lake’s two outlets by skewing
    the salt-water to freshwater ratio of the two estuaries, the
    Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

    Sylvester said she expected the lake to return to a healthy level —
    between 13.5 feet and 15.5 feet — by spring, although the predicted
    wet winter could stymie those plans.

    State and federal officials are trying to solve the lake’s flooding
    problem by building reservoirs so they have places to put water
    other than Lake Okeechobee.

    Earlier this month, Gov. Jeb Bush announced he would expedite a $1
    billion plan to build three reservoirs. The reservoirs are part of
    the $8.4 billion Everglades restoration plan.

    The reservoirs would hold enough water to fill about 6 million
    backyard pools, said Ernie Barnett, director of ecosystem projects
    at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The first
    reservoir would be ready in 2009 and the last in 2011.

    “The only short term solution is to build the long term solutions
    quicker,” Barnett said.

    The World Wildlife Fund working with local cattle ranchers to find
    other solutions. They’re studying whether it would be cost effective
    to pay ranchers to store water on their land.

    That would also restore some of the natural water movement, which
    has been altered by canals and dikes, said Sarah Lynch, senior
    program officer at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

    Meanwhile, Fox had to leave the lake to find the small wading birds,
    which were crowding a ditch off the Okee-Tantie Marina, on the north
    side of the lake. They had found water shallow enough to forage for

    Over time, the birds will fly farther and farther away looking for a
    suitable habitat, he said. “The water’s got to go down.”

The forum ‘Strange Animal Deaths’ is closed to new topics and replies.