Don’t Blame the Sparrow

Endangered Species Act Does Not Affect Lake Okeechobee Discharges

By Peter Girard

As Florida officials deflect blame for this year’s toxic algae disaster, the most ridiculous scapegoat they’ve found is a sparrow. This should be funny, but instead it spotlights a coordinated campaign of disinformation to distract the public from the reasons our estuaries are collapsing.

Billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee were discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries

The accused culprit is the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, which nests in grassy high ground in the Everglades, called marl prairie. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have worked with state officials to regulate the amount of water sent to the sparrow’s nesting grounds in the spring, to give the birds a chance to breed. But their efforts don’t stop water from being sent into Everglades National Park. In fact, this year they moved more water than ever through the S-333, a spillway connecting Water Conservation Area (WCA) 3A to the park through the L-29 canal.

Nevertheless South Florida Water Management District representatives claimed in November that the state can’t discharge water to the park between February and August, and that the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries would regularly be “bombed” with discharges from Lake Okeechobee as a result. This isn’t true.

Luis Alejandro, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief, water management section, confirmed that state and federal authorities sent unprecedented volumes of water from WCA 3A into the northest portion of Everglades National Park. In fact, the wettest January on record since 1932 gave the Corps a chance to test its capacity to convey water to the park through Shark River Slough, thanks to a temporary allowance for more water to flow through the L-29 canal, which parallels the Tamiami Trail. “We were able to relay about 115,000 acre feet via S-333 that we couldn’t have sent before the deviation,” Alejandro said.

ACOE_South Florida System

Alejandro estimated that the increase more than compensated for—and potentially doubled—the amount of water that could have been conveyed through two gates at the western edge of the WCA 3A, S-12A and S-12B, which remained mostly closed to direct water away from the sparrows’ nesting grounds. Even in the rainiest dry season in decades, actions taken to protect the birds didn’t restrict the agencies’ ability to send water into Everglades National Park.

That didn’t stop Water Management District representatives from complaining publicly that federal partners shackle the state with a single-species management policy that devastates hundreds of other species, and that the sparrow didn’t historically live in the area being protected in the first place. None of that is true.

Bob Progulske, Everglades program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained the agency’s approach to protecting the sparrow as well as other Everglades species, endangered or not. “We are not managing a single species. We manage habitats, and the marl prairie is itself endangered. Our goal is to preserve the entire ecosystem.”

Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow

As for the story that that the birds only recently came to the area from their natural home on the coast, Progulske said, “The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow has always been in Everglades National Park. It was first found in the Cape Sable area, but there is no evidence that it moved into the park because of loss of habitat to hurricanes or anything else.”

Progulske also dismissed the idea that reducing flows into the sparrows’ nesting grounds forces Lake Okeechobee discharges to the coasts. “The impact of lake water levels is almost unrelated to water levels in the WCA. The primary source of water is rain. During the dry season of 2016, besides rain, there was water from flood control measures in the Everglades Agricultural Area flowing into the WCA, and also flood control efforts in Broward and Miami-Dade. The closure of S-12A and S-12B have no impact on the volume of water flowing east and west to the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee.”

Creating a Diversion from Efforts to Stop Everglades Restoration

Claims that the sparrow drives water management policies responsible for the collapse of the St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee, and Florida Bay estuaries may distract the public from the debate over Everglades restoration, which increasingly pits Florida’s appointed water management officials against federal agencies, scientists, residents, and local businesses. Governor Rick Scott and Florida’s sugar industry have fought bitterly against key components of Everglades restoration, especially the proposal now backed by Senate President Joe Negron to build a dynamic reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to clean and send more water to the park – and less to the coasts. More than 200 scientists have said that this project is critical for restoring freshwater flows and reducing lake discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee.

Restoring southward flow: US Army Corps of Engineers

No matter how political arguments frame the issue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Progulske is adamant that the sparrow and efforts to protect it can’t be blamed for obstructing progress. “Let me make this clear: The Endangered Species Act is not stopping Everglades restoration. It’s actually accelerating restoration. We negotiated with the Army Corps to accelerate projects with the goal of moving more water into the park,” he said.

The Army Corps’ Alejandro reiterated this point, stressing that moving more water south instead of to the coasts, and distributing it more evenly into the park and Florida Bay, has guided the planning and delivery of every major Everglades infrastructure project for a generation.

 “We are working toward restoration. That’s our mission, and this is a collaborative effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Florida that includes more than the southern part of the system.” Examples include projects like the C-44 stormwater treatment area in the east and the C-43 reservoir in the west, which as the Army Corps emphasized, are all connected as pieces within the larger Everglades restoration vision.

As for the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow whose population has plummeted in recent years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with the Army Corps, issued a jeopardy biological opinion in July with a plan to regulate water levels flowing through the Water Conservation Area and the birds’ marl prairie habitat. As in the spring of 2016, their plan includes sending more – not less – water south into the eastern reaches of Everglades National Park. Officials claiming that these measures block water from moving south and force freshwater discharges to the coasts are passing along false information, and they know better.