Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray Reports from Lake Okeechobee

On November 30, I ventured on Lake Okeechobee from Okee-Tantie, to inspect some of the in-lake management projects that have been done, and are being planned. Along on the trip was Don Fox, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), also this year’s winner of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies “Fisheries Biologist of the Year” award, Dr. Bruce Sharfstein, of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and Kevin Powers, SFWMD Governing Board member from Indiantown.

Lake Okeechobee’s water level was at 13 feet and conditions were just beautiful. The marshes and submerged plant communities have (finally) recovered from the high water events of 2004 and 2005, and not only are the plant communities vibrant, but the birds using the marsh were abundant and varied. We tallied 47 species in a three hour trip, including Snail Kites, many Limpkins, Roseate Spoonbills, 9 other species of herons and egrets, and 10 species of shorebirds, gulls, and terns, with many in large flocks.

Past “marsh-scraping” projects that cleared organics from the marshes have re-grown with desired spike rush and bladderwort communities, as opposed to adjacent un-scraped areas still dominated by brush, and holding few birds. Don showed us old aerial photos and maps depicting a slough from Tin House Cove up to the Buckhead Ridge Marshes that has filled with dead plant material. FWC plans to reopen the slough if the lake gets low enough this year. FWC also is developing burning prescriptions for the marsh to take advantage of low water conditions. Burns help remove organics and stimulate germination and growth of many marsh plant species. SFWMD, and other agencies contribute financing and expertise for these efforts as well.

In spite of great conditions now, the lake is lower than desired for this early in the dry season, and if weather predictions are accurate, the lake could drop as low as 10 feet by June. Wading bird nesting might not be possible this spring. Similarly, this could kill off the recent apple snail recovery which in turn, could make the lake unfit for Snail Kite nesting for several more years. Such low levels also would create water supply rationing for farmers and the cut off fresh water flows that maintain proper Caloosahatchee Estuary salinities, killing their tape grass beds and associated spawns of fish, crabs, shrimp, and other estuary inhabitants.

The Audubon team continues to work in Okeechobee’s watershed to gain more water storage capacity that will help prevent these low water events (and high water too), as well as projects to clean up Okeechobee’s water. This week we submitted extensive comments on how to improve the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan (LOPP) 3-year update, including a written letter to Carol Wehle, the Executive Director of the SFWMD. The LOPP specifies projects to improve water quality and level managements, as well as in-lake management activities.

When I thanked Governing Board member Kevin Powers for coming, he emphasized that he has to vote on many issues affecting the Lake and St. Lucie Estuary, and he is a person who wants to see and know, first hand, what he is voting on. We appreciate his care and extra efforts.