MIAMI (CBSMiami) — When Tropical Storm Isaac moved across South Florida, it brought some much needed rain to Lake Okeechobee which is South Florida’s back-up water supply. But at the time same time, it caused water levels to rise a bit too much in the Everglades which is bad for the wildlife.
Due to the current high water levels in the Everglades, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has issued an executive order temporarily restricting public access to portions of the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area.
They say high water levels have forced area wildlife to take refuge on tree islands and levees, resulting in increased levels of stress for the animals.
“This is how 90 percent of the islands in the Everglades look right now,” said Marshall Jones of Mack’s Fish Camp as he stood in ankle deep water on one of the islands. “The water level is at its extreme to where the wildlife have no place to escape the water.”
When animals crowd onto the islands, they compete for not just space, but also food.
“The limited resources of food become scarce very, very fast,” said Jones. “It only takes a matter of a couple of weeks and the majority of the population of wildlife there no longer has much to forage on.”
For deer, if they don’t get onto dry ground, it could kill them.
“The deer would need approximately 4 hours a day in an area like this to dry out their hooves and their skin, their hide,” Jones explained. “Otherwise, they will begin to get hoof rot and hide rot and that will kill them in a matter of days.”
The order to restrict public access prohibits vehicles, airboats, ATVs and other means of public access to the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. This area lies in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Access to Conservation Area 2A from the L-35B levee north to the east-west airboat trail is still permitted.
The order also prohibits the taking of game. However, this order does not apply to people permitted to participate in the statewide alligator and migratory bird hunts, to frogging, or to people operating boats within the established canal systems and within one mile of marshes adjacent to canals within the wildlife management area.
Boaters must maintain a minimum distance of 100 yards from any tree island or levee when operating a vessel or airboat to minimize disturbance to upland wildlife.
To report a violation of this order, or any fish and wildlife law violation, call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert hotline at 888-404-3922.
As for Lake Okeechobee’s water level, it now stands at 15.05 feet above sea level, rising more than two feet due to Isaac’s drenching.
The extra water in the lake will help South Florida water supplies during the upcoming winter-to-spring dry season.
At one point following Isaac, storm water flowed into Lake Okeechobee at 30,000 cubic feet per second. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two seconds, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
The Army Corps of Engineers tries to keep lake levels between 12.5 and 15.5 feet so if the lake level continues to rise, there could be a new problem, too much water. If that happens, the Army Corps of Engineers would consider dumping lake water out to sea.
Draining away lake water would ease the strain on the Herbert Hoover Dike which is considered one of the country’s most at risk of failure.
But dumping billions of gallons also wastes lake water relied on to back up South Florida water supplies during the typically dry winter and spring.
Also, dumping lake water out to sea can have damaging environmental consequences on coastal estuaries — leading to fish kills and harming delicate marine habitat.
Before farming and development spread across South Florida, water from Lake Okeechobee used to naturally overlap the lake’s southern shore and flow south to replenish the Everglades.
The lake’s dike was built to corral that water, guarding against flooding and using the lake to supplement South Florida water supplies. With few other storage options, when lake water levels rise too high the main option for flood-prevention is to dump it out to sea.
The restrictions will remain in place until the water goes down.