In spite of Florida’s significant development, the health of estuarine seagrass is something we expect and treasure. Being the home of baby fish and wildlife, estuaries are often called the “cradle of the ocean.”
According the the USDA, “estuaries are among the most productive natural systems on earth.” Their value? Perhaps priceless. And we are losing money fast.
Today I wanted to share information presented at a Rivers Coalition meeting now posted for the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon estuary; I will touch on four other sister estuaries as well: Caloosahathcee; Lake Worth Lagoon; Biscayne Bay; and Florida Bay. Being familiar with each, can help us advocate for the value of the greater whole.
I. St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon
Last week, my brother Todd Thurlow, shared satellite and GIS images that show a story of seagrass loss in the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon estuary in an area known to locals as Sailfish Flats. I have taken screen shot images of Todd’s website below. The first image was taken in 2007 and the second on 2-24-2021. In spite of yearly variations due to season, temperature, and other natural changes, I think it is clear that seagrass has declined. The real killer is that the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon had once attained the greatest species diversity of any estuary in North America, (Lodge, The Everglades Handbook, 4th Edition, page 175).
Right now, it appears that seagrasses have disappeared in the Sailfish Flats region. The reason? Certainly there are many including the damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee, and canals C-44, C-23 and C-24. ~Hurricanes? Climate Change? Sea level rise? Fertilizers from local runoff? Destruction of native trees and vegetation? Earlier dredge and Fill? Septic Tanks? Dredging? Beach Renourishment? But some of these things have gone on for decades, so why now such a difference? Please share your ideas and experiences.
To see all images throughout many years visit Todd’s website eyeonlakeo.
-Seagrass loss a visual survey, Sailfish Flats, SLR/IRL, 2007 compared to 2021
I am no expert in the Caloosahatchee, but it is commonly known that if it gets too saline in the upper estuary, the underwater grasses there can die. I am sharing the most recent Sanibel Captive Conservation Foundation “Caloosahatchee Conditions Report” as it shows the organization recommending 2000 cfs from the ACOE (Lake Okeechobee) but will be recommending less or none in the future.
III. Lake Worth Lagoon
Lake Worth Lagoon, once a huge freshwater lake, is now open to the sea. LWL has many issues, but sediment covering seagrasses -especially from the C-51 canal- is a big one. You can learn more at the Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resource Management website.
IV. Biscayne Bay
The South Florida Water Management had an outstanding workshop on Biscayne Bay last December. Seagrass loss was a big topic and they had just had a fish kill. You can learn more here.
V. Florida Bay
Florida Bay has endured significant seagrass loss, especially, most recently in 2015. This year due to 2020 rains, the Bay is having a very good year as recently reported by the SFMWD. (See page 24). Audubon’s Everglades Science Center is a good website to learn about issues of seagrass loss and others facing Florida Bay.
“Seagrasses? What seagrasses?” It must be “Seagrasses! What Seagrasses!”
~Documenting the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon. Sewall’s Point, Ed and my home, lies between the St Lucie & Indian River Lagoon. My husband, Ed Lippisch, flew high, up to 7000 feet, to take photos of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, and S-80 (St Lucie Locks and Dam), on Sunday, February 21. The pictures were taken around 2:45pm on a very windy day. (Thus I declined an invitation!) Ed basically made a big circle.
I am including all 52 photos as each one presents a slightly different perspective. Ed flew from the Crossroads and inlet of the SLR/IRL west to S-80 along the C-44 canal. There he saw no discharges coming through the gates from either the C-44 basin or Lake Okeechobee. Most recently, the ACOE halted discharges on January 9th, 2021 after 3 months of discharging. The river is starting to recover in appearance, but not soul.
Today, Lake Okeechobee is at 15.42 feet.
Tomorrow at 3pm the ACOE will hold a media call to announce their operational decisions for the coming week/s. James Yochem, spokesman for the Corp, has shared the following media advisory. The public usually does not speak on these calls but can listen-in.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District will conduct a briefing with interested media representatives regarding water management for Lake Okeechobee and south Florida. The media briefing will be held Feb. 25 at 3 p.m.
Please join the call using this information:
US Toll Free 844-800-2712 Access code 199 453 9583
If you are asked for an attendee ID number, dial #
It is very important that we are paying attention to “all things river”and “speaking up for the St Lucie” when possible as we approach wet and hurricane seasons.
Thank you Ed for the recent aerials!
~To view Ed’s photo essay documentation prior to this one on February 3, 2021, see Milky Waters!
~To review what happened to the St Lucie in Toxic 2016, see Too Unthinkable.
-Lake Okeechobee’s northwestern shoreline on a beautiful day, 2020. Photo Ed Lippisch and Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch“LOSOM.” Sounds rather ominous doesn’t it?
You may have heard the acronym recently and wanted to get involved. Today, I will try to simplify the major aspects of LOSOM best known as the “Lake Okeechobee System Operation Manual,” by splitting the process into three sections, past, present and future. It is my hope that this helps the everyday-person make sense of a complicated process and provides tools for effective advocacy.
Getting involved with LOSOM is about the most important thing we can do to “be a voice for the estuaries” because it means influencing a very complex lake operating system that for years has favored water users at the expense of the estuaries. Over time, priorities change, it is time to be fair, and now is an opportunity to speak-up. This occasion comes along only every decade, or two…
So here we go!
The ACOE’s lake operation systems entail a lot of complicated science, however, one thing we can all understand is lake level. The modern lake regulation schedules began in the 1970s. Outstanding author and scientist, Thomas E. Lodge, states on page 153, in his book, The Everglades Handbook, Fourth Edition :“Since the 1930s, Lake Okeechobee’s water levels, or stages, have been regulated in an effort to balance often conflicting goals.”
The goals/so called benefits of expanding the canal system and draining Florida were the following: 1. Flood control; 2.Land Use (creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area, and more drained land for development throughout the system); 3. Navigation; 4. Fish and Wildlife; 5. Water Supply, and 6. Recreation.
What is not mentioned, nor was considered in times past, is “Health.”
In recent years, poor water quality, due to non-point and point source pollution build-up over many years, has led to large toxic algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee; unfortunately due to irresponsibility and carelessness, it has reached mammoth proportions. When discharged to the estuaries, St Lucie, Caloosahatchee, and the Lake Worth Lagoon (not yet formally considered an “estuary”) local economies, as well as wildlife and human health is threatened to the point of catastrophe.
The NOAA satellite image below shows a cyanobacteria bloom on Lake Okeechobee in July of 2016. Absolutely unbelievable. To deal with this dangerous situation, over the past couple of years, the Army Corp has implemented a Harmful Algae Bloom Deviation. It will more than likely become part of LOSOM.
-Lake O, NOAA satellite image 2016. Table 11.2 below is an excerpt from Dr Lodge’s book and is extremely helpful in understanding the history of the Army Corp of Engineers’ regulation schedules and management of Lake Okeechobee. LOSOM will come next, starting in 2022.
-According to Dr Lodge, a 1913 Corp of Engineers’ report “established the wet season level of Lake O at 20.6 feet NGVD. Seasonal low was 19.2 feet. Since 1913 the lake has multiple canal outlets and is now smaller and enclosed by a dike (1933). Regulation schedules since the 1970s are listed below. CLICK TO ENLARGE TABLE BELOW.
After studying the chart, one can see that we are entering the 6th modern Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule.
As mentioned, right now 1. Flood control (this includes dike and flood water safety); 2. Land Use; 3. Navigation; 4. Fish and Wildlife; 5. Water Supply and 6. Recreation are the goals lake regulation schedules of the past have worked under. But as the HAB deviation tells us, times are changing and priorities must be defined by the times we live in.
Which category do think has priority now? Which one/s had priority in the distant past? Why? Where do you want the priorities in the future? Should there be yet another priority such as health?
Mr Mitnick shared the slide below during this WATER CONDITIONS SUMMARY, which now includes LOSOM. Notice the word “health” is used a lot. Interesting.
The world of LOSOM is a world of scientific models. And it is these scientific models that will help determine the future. The South Florida Water Management District’s expertise as a local sponsor of the Central and Southern Florida Plan puts them in charge of the modeling for the Army Corp of Engineers. Groups of volunteer and experts have been discussing these models since January of 2019. They have narrowed the models down from over 120,000. Now you can jump in too!
Note the numbers to left of each sub-objective or goal. For instance, the number next to “Enhancing ecology in the St Lucie” is 4C. The scientific models that benefit the St Lucie are 4C models. The number next to “Enhancing ecology in the Caloosahatchee” is 4B. The models that benefit the Calooshachee most are 4Bs. The ideal lake operation conditions for these two estuaries are not quite the same. For instance, the St Lucie wants 0 discharges, but the Caloosahatchee needs some discharges due to salinity issues. When the LOSOM process gets to “balancing” these things will have to be worked out along with all the other stakeholder goals and wishes. Get the idea?
So here’s your chance. What is your priority for your water body or other? Of course they are all important but what stands out for you TODAY? 1. Flood control; 2. Land Use; 3. Navigation; 4. Fish and Wildlife; 5. Water Supply; and 6. Recreation and/or 7. Health.
Think Estuaries: St Lucie, Caloosahatcee, Lake Worth Lagoon, Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay, Lake Okeechobee itself? Once upon a time, Lake Okeechobee was once part of the greatest estuary in the world-our River of Grass!
In the art of negotiating, or “balancing,” as the ACOE calls it, start strong with your first priority. Ask yourself which category has taken a back seat? Maybe you are not pleased with any of them. Which priority should come forward? Perhaps its a combination. You decide!
So where are we in this complicated process? The SFWMD will hold workshops for the board and public in the coming months. But consider getting involved now.
The SFWMD image below shows that we are in the green phase: January 2021-May 2021, where 13 models will be chosen from the 27,000. This is too much to think about. Just focus on your goal. Your number from the above chart.
The yellow rectangle that is so hard to read says: “Iteration 2, Balanced Array of Lake Schedules” (May 2021-July 2021). After July we will enter the orange phase and all of the feedback (advocacy and input) will be “balanced.” Negotiated.
Negotiated in the public arena! When all is said and done, the new lake plan —the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) —will take effect in 2022.
So speak up now! Write the Army Corp, the address is below or better yet, attend Monday’s February 22, 2021 meeting if possible. There will be others, but put your foot in the water now. 🙂
Even though, this has been a relatively complicated post, I hope it has helped simply the LOSOM process: thank you for being a voice for the estuaries and our waters!
-Looking towards a future where progress means water flowing south. EAA Reservoir /STA 2021. Photo credit, Libby Pigman, SFWMD. What do they say? “There is no stopping progress!” And the definition of progress changes throughout the ages…
Monday, February 15, 2021, was an Everglades “progress” inspiration for me. The last time I had visited this area was October of 2019. There were vast sugar fields as far as the eye could see. Today, the area is a field of dreams, a goal of collective effort, the lynchpin for sending more water south and significantly alleviating a hundred years of destruction to the Northern Everglades: St Lucie, Caloosahtchee, and often Lake Worth Lagoon.
The trip to the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area is an experience in and of itself. The District is in charge of building the giant marsh or Stormwater Treatment Area (STA.) South Florida Water Management District Communications Director, Sean Cooley and I met as the sun rose, and then drove west in a truck from South Florida Water Management District Headquarters through West Palm Beach and the Everglades Agricultural Area, to meet Regional Representative Libby Pigman and Hendry County Commissioner, Carson Turner – who chairs the powerful 16 County Coalition. I have known Commissioner Turner since 2008 and it was fantastic to see him. He is a wealth of knowledge and perspective that I very much appreciate.
The highlight of the day? Because of my SFWMD Governing Board status, I was allowed to push the button to detonate the dynamite blast. Not really my cup of tea, but it was exciting! And oh my gosh, the shells! Boring 18 feet into the cap rock, thousands of years of ancient earth and shell come to surface.
As we walked through the piles of rock and shell after the blast, I thought about how this area was once the flooded southern sawgrass plains leading to the Ridge and Slough and Shark River Slough, rising to replenish Florida Bay. I envisioned millions of beautiful wading birds and rookeries doting the spectacular and rare landscape. I thought of how in the name of “progress” humankind drained and destroyed the Everglades. I thought about how priorities change over time. I smiled thinking about how the EAA Reservoir and Storm Water Treatment Area is a real reason for hope, an attempt to return a connection to this sacred River of Grass. In the name of modern progress let’s keep going! For the birds, for the wildlife, for our children, indeed, for all of us.
Enjoy the photos and blast videos! And thank you to SFWMD staff and RYAN for the tour. -Map of EAA Reservoir/STA. Our location A-2 STA, C-623
-A red-eared slider turtle greets us at the gate! “Hurry up…” he says! -“We want the STA” cried the wading birds! “We need an upgrade!” -We arrive at the EAA STA construction worksite. -David Anderson, RYAN inspector, reviews safely and the day.-Comr. Turner and I look at a map. Carson shares perspective. I learned a lot. -Amid EAA STA construction: David Anderson, RYAN Inspector; Libby Pigman, Regional Rep, SFWMD, Sean Cooley, Communications Dir. SFWMD, Carson Turner, Hendry County Comr. Dist. 5, JTL GB SFWMD.-Site of detonation that will be part of an intake canal system for the EAA STA (pink highlighter pen, upper left corner, on above map shows approximate location). -Muck, ancient deteriorated sawgrass, scraped from cap rock and piled up will be re-laid after construction in STA for plant growth that will filter the water before it goes to the reservoir.-Ancient shells. Florida is of course, an ancient sea…The Everglades is estimated to be “only” 6000 years old.-Dynamite container bored 18 feet into rock. -RYAN’S Mahmound Khalaifa saw I was looking for shells so he showed me what he had found! Ancient coral head and various bivalves. Beautiful! -More review on safety and blast from true professionals.-JTL prepares to hit the button!
-Sean Cooley, Communications Director SFWMD and Comr. Turner walk carefully amid the mountainous post-blast site. -Carson Turner & JTL pose for the camera. Jacqui is finding fossils and cool rocks.-Carson found an ancient coral head and gifted it to me. Thank you Comr. Turner! -Driving a short distance from the blast site one sees the infamous “pyramids” against the horizon. This is rock that has been crushed and ground down. It will be used to create the canal edges and levees. Nothing on site is wasted. -Final explanations, questions, and wrap-up! A great day! Rock crusher in background.-The road home …-Treasures from the Earth… Thank you Everglades….-General location of EAA Reservoir STA on Google Maps. It lies between the Miami and New River Canals. The perfect place to reconnect!
More photos of EAA Reservoir’s STA blast canal digging with explanations, January 2021, TCPalm, photographer, Leah Voss article Max Chesnes.
-Shadow in Toxic algae, Central Marine, St Lucie River, Stuart, FL 2016. Photo JTLSince February 1, 2021, the St Lucie River has fallen under an Army Corp of Engineer’s “HAB Deviation” or Harmful Algae Bloom Deviation. If you are not familiar with it, this is a complex situation, and it took a lot to get there; however, I am going to try to explain it in easy terms.
Basically, HAB Deviation means that the ACOE has the authority to discharge from Lake Okeechobee in order to avoid another toxic summer. The HAB Deviation gives the ACOE the ability, if necessary, to discharge more flexibly than is documented in the present Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, or LORS 2008. The HAB Deviation may dovetail with new requirements in 2022, when a new, updated lake regulation schedule called LOSOM, is delivered. The HAB Deviation may or may not exist then. But for now, it does.
“Why?” you may ask.
Because actually the ACOE is trying to protect the estuaries from a precarious future. For example, this year, today, (2-14-21) Lake Okeechobee, is at 15.40 feet. This is considered “high” from a St Lucie/Caloosahatchee point of view because looking forward to June 1st 2021, when rainy season begins, it appears the estuaries may be receiving discharges.
Again, the purpose is for the ACOEs to be able to discharge -to get the lake down early- so they don’t “have” to massively discharge come summer -when the lake undoubtably will have algae blooms. The goal is to avoid discharging algae. Thus the term HAB DEVIATION.
“Is it better to get the discharges during the winter months when there is not algae in Lake Okeechobee?” This is a difficult question.
Best would be not to get any at all…
Today, I share because it is all so confusing. At a recent SFWMD meeting, I realized that I didn’t even understand that although the St Lucie is not receiving discharges, the deviation has already begun…
Approved Planned Deviation from LORS 2008 to reduce risk from Harmful Algal Blooms
2020 Planned Deviation to the Water Control Plan for Lake Okeechobee and Everglades Agricultural Area (LORS 2008)
Glades, Hendry, Martin, Okeechobee, and Palm Beach counties
Final Supplemental Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact (Oct. 8 2020)
NOTE: very large files may take several minutes to open and download.
-2016 Toxic Algae Bloom, St Lucie River at Central Marine. The algae blooms start in Lake Okeechobee. When discharged to the St Lucie River the blooms are exaserbated by poor water quality and the freshness of the once brackish estuary due to long releases from the Lake Okeechobee. This pattern must stop. More water must flow south. Photo JTL
My husband Ed, and friend, Dan Velinsky, went fishing yesterday (2-9-21) at “Sailfish Flats” between Sewall’s and Sailfish Point. It was indeed a spectacular day, and Ed returned home smiling even though they didn’t catch any fish. “It was beautiful.” He exclaimed. “But no seagrass, no fish, except hiding by the islands…” Then he turned with wide smile: “We even saw seven dolphins and two turtles! I taped them!”
The whole time Ed was speaking, I couldn’t help it…
I saw a number flashing in my head: 15.41, the level of Lake Okeechobee on February 9, 2021. This number is high from a St Lucie point of view for this time of year. In June will come rainy season….
As ACOE’s Col. Kelly reported last week, the lake is going dow, but: “Today, the lake stage is at 15.42 feet, which is still 2.5 feet higher than it was one year ago, and 2.7 feet higher than it was two years ago.”
I share Ed photos “on a perfect day,” to document- knowing – we must keep an eye on Lake Okeechobee and the decisions of Army Corp of Engineers .
Yesterday, February 7, 2021, before the Super Bowl, Ed and I took the binoculars and walked to watch sunset at Bird Island. The Indian River Lagoon on the east side of Sewall’s Point is always spectacular at this time of day. Once we took a seat, we were amazed to see an almost endless flock of cawing fish crows making their way to roost somewhere south of Bird Island, maybe in the area of St Lucie Inlet State Park. We could see the shifting shape flying from the horizon miles away. They appeared like little mosquitoes approaching from the distance! There were thousands and thousands of fish crows!
Although I was born in 1964, and grew up in Sewall’s Point and Stuart, the first time I noticed the massive flocks was along the St Lucie River in North River Shores back in the late 90s. I would watch with amazement for hours as they steadily made their way across the sky. “Where are they going?” I thought. “Where do they come from?” Although Fish Crows are listed as being at risk due to Climate Change, it certainly seems that their numbers are increasing.
I include a couple of videos and encourage comments on what readers may know of this incredible phenomenon. This survivor of a bird!
Video 1: Thousands of fish crows fly over east Sewall’s Point near Bird Island. Video 2. Same but even better view hundreds more in the near distance. Incredible!
~St Lucie Inlet with Crossroads of SLR/ILR at Sewall’s Point Ed’s February 3, 2021 photos of the St Lucie River & Indian River Lagoon at the St Lucie Inlet are unusual. Taken during cold temperatures and windy conditions at 2:15pm – at “dead high tide,” they show the incoming blue waters with a milky quality juxtaposed to the darker estuarine. This combination is one I have never seen, ever. Ed and I have been documenting since 2013. When I first saw these photos, I posted a few on Facebook stating: “Interesting…”
Later, my brother Todd wrote back:
“I just saw Ed’s pictures of the river. When we were out last weekend the St. Lucie was that milky blue. With the pounding waves offshore, the water was full of suspended sand. You would think that sand is actually beneficial when it is transported inside the estuaries to settle on top of the muck bottom. I did YouTube videos of the Bahamas after Dorian when the entire Bahama bank and outer reefs were that same milky blue.”
So that’s what’s going on! Interesting!
Today I share more of Ed’s recent photos. They are taken from 4000+ feet which gives a much broader perspective and highlights the beauty of the St Lucie Inlet region in spite our struggle to revive our seagrasses and protect our water from discharges, especially those of Lake Okeechobee. On February 3, when these aerials were taken, the ACOE was not discharging having halted January 9th, 2021 after 3 months. At the present moment the ACOE does not have plans to discharge from Lake Okeechobee. The lake is presently sitting at 15.37 feet.
This could be problematic for the St Lucie come summer…
*Thank you to my husband, Ed Lippisch for taking these photos!
Mr Chesnes explains that when tragedy struck, Mr Steve Fugate “hit the road.” Fugate had lost his son to suicide and his daughter to accidental drug overdose To cope, the 74 year old Vero Beach native, began walking, finding solace and inspiration in Nature along the way…
In 2016, I wrote about one sighted in Allapattah Flats – ten miles west of Palm City, where in fact, SFWDM just held a Ribbon-Cutting. But because Panthers are few and far between compared to the south west coast of Florida, in my opinion, they do not get the government press or the protection via fencing and wildlife underpasses they should here. There is no urgency anyway.
“It was just one hit in twenty years.” I’ve heard. “Most are on the west coast…”
I think there should be signs, underpasses, fencing, and press on the east coast as well. For Mr Fugate and others, every life counts. Thank you to reporter, Max Chesnes and thank you to Mr Fugate, I am inspired! I will be making a donation on the panther’s behalf!
TCpalm: In an effort to raise awareness, and funding for the critically endangered Florida Panther, Vero Beach native, Steve Fugate has partnered with the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida and started on a nearly three-week, 1,600mile walk around Florida. Photo PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM. Click here for full article.
“Now, Fugate hopes to give back to the natural world and its inhabitants that embraced him throughout the years. His latest walk, which started Saturday, will take him from Vero Beach — through St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties — to Key West, then up Florida’s west coast from Naples to Tallahassee.
“They’re just gorgeous animals,” Fugate said of the species, named in 1982 as Florida’s official state animal. There are only an estimated 120 to 230 wild panthers left, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
It may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a big thing. How does the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) manage mowing responsibilities for the Central and South Florida Project?
The Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, first authorized by Congress in 1948, is a multi-purpose project that provides flood control, water supply for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses, prevention of saltwater intrusion, water supply for Everglades National Park, and protection of fish and wildlife resources. The primary system includes more than 1,000 miles each of levees and canals, 150 water control structures, and 16 major pump stations.
~The ACOE built this system and the SFWMD was created to manage it.
“Maintenance of District Lands is required to ensure that vegetation is controlled at the appropriate height to provide for optimal performance and operational efficiency of the District’s flood control system.”
I had inquired. I had questioned…
I had visions of the District mowing down every blade of grass. I asked what was done for the ecology? “Does the District leave any flowering weeds for bees or butterflies?” “Does the the District think about vegetation for the wildlife or do we just mow it all down in the name of flood control?”
I figured it would be the later…I was wrong.
On January 28, 2021, I got the tour of a lifetime and learned that there was more to it than mowing. A lot more.I met the heads of departments at DuPuis Wildlife Management Area near Indiantown in Martin County. The goal of my tour was to visit levees and canals and learn about SFWMD mowing practices. Photo: South Florida Florida Management Leadership, L-R back to front: Francois Laroche, Vegetation Mgt. Section Administrator; Rich Virgil, Field Ops. Division Director; Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief; Chris Edelstein, Field Ops. Bureau Chief; LeRoy Rodger, Invasive Species Unit Lead; and me, JTL, SFWMD Governing Board.
First we drove to the C-44 canal near S-308, an area I know well. The S-308 structure allows the Army Corp of Engineers to discharge water from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River. The C-44 was first constructed from ca. 1913 to 1923 and over the years widened and “improved.” This repetitive disruption of the soil allows invasive plants to move in each time.
I did not realize the extent until SFWMD’s LeRoy Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead, and Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist, told me the story and showed me the back side of the C-44 canal near S-308.
NAPIER GRASS: Introduced as a forage grass for cattle in the early 1900s; this African grass is extremely invasive. It grows best along disturbed canal edges eventually hindering flood control by blocking access to canals and impeding water flow. It has been here for decades.Over the years, C-44 levees near S-308 have become covered with Napier Grass also known as “Elephant Grass.”
-Canal C-44 at S-308 coved in Napier Grass -Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief, tugs on a Napier plant. ~The Rhizome structure makes the grass very difficult to “just pull out.”The tall grass is mowed intermittently on a schedule. The roots go wide and deep into the ground making it impossible to pull out without compromising the integrity of the Central and South Florida Project at C-44. All that can be done is to manage this explosion of grass.
I looked around. The tall Napier Grass reached as far as my eye could see. I thought about history. I though about time. I thought about responsibility. I asked if there were any benefits for wildlife.
LeRoyRodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead answered. He said certainly, animals could hide there, but it was not a preferred habitat except for one, another invasive, the Burmese Python. He noted that when the SFWMD mowing crews started finding chopped-up python down in Homestead, a few years ago, that was when the District became aware of the python population issue down there.
Not a good visual…
The men compared areas showing me how the grass does respond to more frequent mowing. They explained how when it is mowed, some is cut short, some is left long and some is cut more often than other.
Closest to the road, where it can be mowed more frequently, I could see other plants and weeds not just Nadier Grasses coming in. Weed-like flowers bloomed here and there. Francois Laroche, Vegetation Management Specialist explained the ways of nature. With the more frequent mowing, other plants could “compete.”
I started to get the picture…
-LeRory Rodgers, Invasive Species Unit Lead, points to other plants coming in when Napier Grass is more frequently mowed along flat areas.
Next, we drove just a bit further to the intersection of the C-44 and the S-153 Structure. This structure controls the water inside a canal parallel to Highway 98 and the FPL cooling pond. It was explained to me that this levee is a second line of defense should the waters of Lake Okeechobee pour over. A levee holds water back and a canal moves water. We were here to look at the levee. However, keep in mind, there is a “canal” where dirt is dug to build a levee…-S-153 intersects with C-44 canal; it is an area full of wildlife and displays both native and non-native plants along the canal used to build the levee.
-LeRoy Rodgers & Rich Vigil observe a fern; this one is not native, used in landscaping yards. -S-153 at C-44 canal Looking around I was happy to see more flowering weeds and plants, and less invasive Napier Grass. This wasn’t the “flowering prairie” I had hoped for, but after my lesson on invasives, I was a bit more open minded. As I looked around, small birds darted away, quickly taking cover. A fish jumped close to a mass of dollar weeds that were wedged up against a floating rope. Some wildlife lives here!
I was starting to consider the balance. Where there was mowing, there were more flowering weeds and other plants. As Francois had said, mowing allowed competition.
To answer my question about plants for pollinators, we found numerous native Spanish Needles. These native blooms are highly visited by a range of pollinators and butterflies. There were others I did not recognize flowering as well. I saw a yellow butterfly, maybe a sulphur. Dragonflies were everywhere. I could hear insects chirping.
Mr LeRoy and the others picked flowers saying the names in Latin. We discussed the various vegetation, some native, some not, along the levee. It was a mix.
We kept walking.
“O.K. there’s ding,” said Chris Edelstein, Field Ops Bureau Cheif.
“What’s a ding?” I inquired.
“Something the Army Corp would mark against us. See the dug out areas? That’s from wild hogs foraging for roots and worms.” LeRoy said the name of the long roots left behind in Latin. “This agressive digging is problematic to the integrity of the levee.”
“A ding!” I replied, noting the District’s legal obligation to the Army Corp. of Engineers.
“At least there’s life here,” I repeated. “And I do adore those little piglets!”
We continued looking at plants and weeds. “Oh and here is another ding,” said Chris.
I looked up seeing nothing more than a pile of sand.
Rich Virgil, Field Ops Division Director explained: “That’s a gopher tortoise burrow…their burrows can be over 15 feet long and 6 feet deep. This can definitely be an issue for the integrity of the levee.”
I thought about the possibility of a hurricane and Lake Okeechobee overtaking its dike, the waters pouring east towards the levee. As the men had explained, this levee would be a line of defense.
I got down on the ground, and took a picture. The men talked. It sounded that a threatened gopher tortoise was not as easy to remove as the wild hogs.
The area was very interesting and definitely more wildlife friendly than our first stop. The mowing pattern again showed some vegetation left alone, some mowed shorter, and wild plants growing along the edge of the canal. The edge of the canal is mowed most infrequently by a special contractor when the plants get “too woody.” Otherwise it is left to grow….
I was somewhat impressed.
-Gopher Tortoise burrow in the levee -Edge of canal connected to S-153 displays ferns and other plants, many flowering. I did see a few clumps of the invasive Nadier Grass, but not much.
Last but not least, we drove to Lakeside Ranch, a Storm Water Treatment Area (STA) for nutrient reduction near Taylor Creek, northeast of Lake Okeechobee. In this area the levees of the STA were only a couple of years old; flowering weeds and “good” plants totally outnumbered the small clumps of Nadier Grass. The men talked about the importance of staying on top of the mowing so the Nadeir Grass and other invasive plants wouldn’t take over this area that is now habitat to an extensive number of birds and other wildlife.
“You have to stay on top of it.” Rich said looking from horizon to horizon.
The place was beautiful. As we continued down the path, I laughed out loud at seeing a pile of apple snails, the trash midden of Snail Kites. Rory Feeney, Land Resources Bureau Chief, explained: “You can tell by the shape that these snails are not native, some can become invasive, but for the endangered snail kite, it’s been a life saver. The native Florida apple snail lives in a very limited habitat, whereas the invasive species tolerate more diverse conditions, including human-made impoundments.”
I’m not as judgmental as I was before the field trip. There’s a lot more to it than just mowing!
-Staring down at piles of invasive apple snail shells left by endangered Snail Kites-I hold an empty, non-native, invasive apple snail shell, the snails that helps the Snail Kite survive in a changing Everglades environment. If only the invasive Nadier Grass could do so much good!
Although I first took this photo on January 21, 2021 to document the layer of smoke hovering at the horizon due to the burning sugarcane fields, I later noticed the clear aerial composition of the Green Ridge. Thus I share today…
Looking even briefly at the photograph, you will notice that this ridge is scraped flat by agriculture fields and 1-95 swinging over it – to take advantage of the high 30-35 foot topography.
So what is the Green Ridge and why is it important to the St Lucie River?
The Green Ridge guided waters south as they traveled slowly through the marshy Eastern Flatlands being deepest closest to the Orlando Ridge, Allapattah Flats. (For reference, today Indiantown lies in the southern portion of the Orlando Ridge.)
When the St Lucie Canal, (C-44) was cut ca. 1914-1923 and then deepened, widened, and “improved” many times since, it caused the waters moving southeast to shoot down into the St Lucie. Today, due to agriculture and development, these water are polluted and basically unfiltered and have been allowed to be so for many, many years.
And when Lake Okeechobee is opened into the St Lucie Canal…we all know what happens then. Complete destruction from a water source, Lake Okeechobee, that also was never connected to the St Lucie!
For years I tried to understand the Green Ridge, and it’s importance, now I think I do. In restoring our waters it is helpful to be able to envision how Nature functioned before humans altered the landscape to the point that she is almost unrecognizable.
-Looking southerly towards White Water Bay in Everglades National Park
These photos are the second part of Ed and my flight reported on January 21, 2021. The first part focused on “Finding the Shark River.”
I wanted to include these aerials in my blog as well as they too are interesting to see. This set begins near White Water Bay at the southwestern tip of Florida and travels northeast over the remaining River of Grass. I will note areas based on the FWC map below that compartmentalizes the Everglades, our remaining River of Grass into Everglades National Park and the Water Conservation Areas.
During the flight, in the northern areas especially, there was a lot of smoke in the air as the sugarcane fields were burning in the Everglades Agricultural Area that was once the sawgrass “southern heart” of the River of Grass. Over time agriculture, roads, development, and so called conservation areas have divided her.
-Enjoy the flight.
…As we envision what more we can do to restore this natural wonder.