March was the driest on record in Florida. Can the Everglades cope?

Adriana Brasileiro, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

It's an area that should always have deeper water than the surrounding marshes, and where a slow current is present, like a shallow and slow-moving river.

With water depths decreasing dramatically since the start of the year, nothing is making its way south to Florida Bay, and salinity levels have become critically high, Lawrence Glenn, the district's water resources chief, said during the video conference meeting of the governing board.

"There's concern that we are in the same sort of setup for the sea grass die-off that we saw in 2015," he said.

A drought in South Florida that began in 2014 and continued into 2015 severely reduced freshwater flows into Florida Bay. This period of low rainfall, high temperatures and calm winds increased evaporation, leading to a spike in salinity levels inside the basins in Florida Bay.

Within Garfield Bight, for example, water temperatures exceeded 93.2 degrees for more than 77 days and reached a maximum water temperature of 100 degrees at the end of July. That combination of factors led to a catastrophic collapse in the bay's ecosystem.

Florida Bay's sea grasses aren't the only potential victim of this year's record-dry conditions: peat soil, an essential component of the Everglades, is also at a higher risk of collapsing. As less freshwater flows through the River of Grass, salt water is moving farther inland. Saltwater intrusion and the drying up of the marshes can lead the soil to break down, with elevation dropping quickly, exposing the roots of the vegetation, which eventually dies.

"This is a time when these marshes are most vulnerable to the drivers of peat collapse," said Stephen Davis, a senior ecologist at the Everglades Foundation. "It starts with exposure to salt water, followed by the drying off of those areas. We are seeing these two factors right now."

Davis said the completion of fresh water restoration projects is critical to give the fragile ecosystem a chance at staying properly hydrated, or at least in a condition that's similar to how the Everglades functioned before it was severely altered over the last century.

A key project is a massive storage reservoir and treatment area south of Lake Okeechobee that's supposed to hold about 78 billion gallons of water. The basin is designed to divert polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that is now sent down the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie to the east, flows that have contributed to fish-killing algae blooms.


The project will also help send more water south, passing it through treatment areas and toward the water-starved southern Everglades marshes and Florida Bay. There is no date for completion of the project.

The district will build a large stormwater treatment area while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct the reservoir in the joint state-federal project.

In the meantime, all managers and conservationists can do is pray for rain.

"We will be watching what's going on here, and waiting for the rain," Glenn said.

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