Skinny gators: Are pythons eating all the food in the Everglades?
ST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida's southernmost alligators are too skinny and Lake Okeechobee is choking on sediment, but natural springs long dry are bubbling again because of ecosystem repairs highlighted in a new report card on Everglades health.
The federal performance report, which grades the well-being of Everglades flora and fauna on a 1 to 100 scale, is part of the regular five-year analysis of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
But this is the first year for the user-friendly report card and interactive website.
Overall, the Everglades from the northern estuaries to the southern reaches of Florida Bay, scored a 45, which is considered "fair" but "concerning."
"Things aren't all rosy," said Patricia Gorman, a science supervisor at the South Florida Water Management District, who has worked on the reports from their inception in 2006. "We continue to work on improving the hydrology through the Central Everglades, but until we have some of the infrastructure in place to move water south from Lake Okeechobee there are still going to be problems."
Gorman said the report card is a way to reach a wider audience who can click through the condensed explanations of the grades or dig deeper into the data in the 200 page report. The report card is divided into four regions with results targeting specific subjects such as oysters in the St. Lucie River, water levels in Lake Okeechobee and food supply in Biscayne Bay.
The report covers May 2012 through April 2017, which means it doesn't include the full impact of Hurricane Irma or the devastating outbreaks last year of blue-green algae and toxic red tide.
"If it went to 2019, many of the scores would significantly tank," said Audubon Florida scientist Paul Gray, who specializes in Lake Okeechobee research.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, was authorized by Congress in 2000 as a blueprint for projects aimed at returning the system to a more natural state and preserving what is left. The plan has an estimated 50-year timeline with a price tag of about $10 billion.
The report, which came out late last month, was completed by the Restoration Coordination and Verification program, which includes the Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District, Florida state agencies and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
"The main message is that human impacts on the environment are continuing to degrade the ecosystems of South Florida and even though you have put in a lot of time and money to improve the system, it's still struggling," said Alexandra Fries, project manager at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "Other things are also happening like hurricanes and climate change that degrade the system."
The report notes that sea level rise is happening faster in South Florida than what was anticipated during the development of CERP in the late 1990s and that interim goals may need to be updated.
Six to 10 inches of sea-level rise is possible by 2030, according to the Southeast Florida Regional Compact on Climate Change. By 2060, that could be 14 to 26 inches (above the 1992 mean sea level). In the long term, the compact projects 31 to 61 inches of sea level rise by 2100.
"Unfortunately the report card does not look very good, although it could be worse," said Jayantha Obeysekera, director of Florida International University's Sea Level Solutions Center. "This is a highly constrained system with a lot stakeholders."
While Lake Okeechobee and the northern estuaries suffer from water clarity problems, a loss of underwater vegetation, unbalanced salinity levels, oyster die-offs, and algae outbreaks, the southern coastal systems got the worst grades on the report card.
Inconsistent flows of freshwater, drought, hurricanes and sea level rise are working against restoration in the southernmost reaches of the state.
American crocodiles do poorly in high salinity waters, which plague Florida Bay because not enough freshwater can get past blockades formed by the Tamiami Trail and canals.
And while alligators in the nutrient-laden stormwater treatment areas in the northern part of the Everglades are fat and happy, alligators to the far south are too skinny, affected by too much saltwater and possibly a lack of food.
"In those coastal areas the alligators prey on rabbits, rats and things, but those are being wiped out by the pythons," Gorman said.
The report was not optimistic about controlling the Burmese python population, noting that even though new programs are paying hunters to track and kill the invasive snake, it's unclear how much of a dent they're making.
But there were bright spots in the report.
The Picayune Strand restoration project southeast of Naples, which includes plugging 48 miles of canals and removing 260 miles of crumbling roads to restore water flows, has shown positive results.
Also, long dry natural springs are again upwelling into Biscayne Bay after increases in freshwater discharges to the area pumped up groundwater supplies.
"Those are a couple of the good news stories," Gorman said. "As we implement more projects, we expect more of them."
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