RECOVER:
2014 System Status Report
Executive Summary

Background

The 2014 System Status Report (SSR) evaluates current monitoring data to determine if the goals and objectives of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are being met. The report incorporates data collected by the Restoration Coordination and Verification (RECOVER) Monitoring and Assessment Plan (MAP) program for CERP, data from CERP projects and data provided by RECOVER partners. The information provided builds on previous reports produced in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012.

The goal of the MAP program is to document status and trends of the essential and defining attributes of the south Florida ecosystem. These RECOVER monitoring data are used to assess the status and trends in hydrology affected by restoration project implementation and system water management operations, as well as in ecological parameters (e.g., wading birds) that respond to changes in the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of water. This information is measured against pre-CERP reference conditions and is used to help determine if the goals and objectives of CERP are being met.

This comprehensive understanding of the system enables the successful use of adaptive management principles to track and guide restoration activities. Although CERP implementation has been slower than originally envisioned, progress in project construction and operation has begun in some areas, especially in the Southern Coastal Systems region.

Intended Use and Organization

A robust systemwide monitoring and assessment program like the MAP is also a key component of the CERP Adaptive Management Program. Adaptive management is a structured management approach that links science to decision making in order to improve the probability of restoration success. Scientific information collected by the MAP and reported in the SSR is fed into the decision-making process, allowing managers and decision makers to use the best available science during CERP implementation. Information about the application of adaptive management to CERP is detailed in the CERP Adaptive Management Integration Guide.

Key Findings from the report will be used to assist decision-makers on the timing of planning and implementation of certain CERP features. These data also inform the scientific community in south Florida and provides a basis for such planning efforts as the Central Everglades Planning Project. This project was one of a number of accelerated planning efforts led by the US Army Corps of Engineers. This 18-month process relied heavily on the performance measures and ecological tools that were developed over the past several years under RECOVER’s MAP program.

The 2014 SSR also provides input into the 2015 Report to Congress, required by the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. Produced every five years, the intent of the Report to Congress is to inform the highest levels of the United States government on the progress made toward the goals and objectives of CERP.
The SSR is divided into four geographical regions: Lake Okeechobee, Northern Estuaries, Greater Everglades, and Southern Coastal Systems. This organization helps facilitate the monitoring and analysis, but in no way is meant to imply that the Everglades ecosystem is a series of discrete, unconnected habitats. On the contrary, it is a very complex, vast and inter-connected system of lakes, estuaries, freshwater marshes and forests that needs to be considered as a whole.

Systemwide analysis continues to be a challenge, but progress has been made to this end. Examples of this can be found in the treatment of data in the southern Everglades and estuaries.

The 2009 report introduced the concept of a “webument.” This web-based document framework was the basis for the 2014 report. The format allows for the display of information at multiple levels of detail and complexity. The reader is free to navigate using user-friendly buttons and pictures to explore the information. The “Key Findings” will have videos, pictures and high level summaries, whereas more detailed data reporting can be found for any given ecosystem restoration attribute or region.

2014 System Status Report Highlights

Systemwide Hydrology Context

South Florida was mostly drier than normal from Water Year (WY) 2009 to WY2013 due to below-average rainfall years (WY2009, WY2011 and WY2012) compared to the historical average (1900–1995). This drier climate had dramatic effects on the hydrology in the currently managed system because it descreased flows into and out of each basin and reduced water levels. These hydrologic patterns had different effects in different regions of the system:

  • Reduced inflows to Lake Okeechobee and below average rainfall, coupled with the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, helped reduce high stage events and kept water levels within desired stage ranges for ecology. This also meant less discharge to the Northern Estuaries from the lake, which benefited some parts of estuarine ecology.
  • However, back-to-back dry years decreased basin flow to the Northern Estuaries resulting in high salinities for long periods of time that impacted submerged aquatic vegetation and oysters in the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie estuaries.
  • South of Lake Okeechobee, reduced flows and rainfall decreased marsh water levels (surface and groundwater) in the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) and caused severe dry downs. This resulted in shorter hydroperiods, and higher salinities in estuaries, which negatively affected ecosystem indicators in the Greater Everglades (too dry in northern parts of WCAs and Everglades National Park, and too wet in southern parts of WCAs) and Southern Coastal Systems (salinities too high overall).

The following bulleted sections summarize the effects of hydrology on ecosystem indicators in each region.

Lake Okeechobee

  • Ecology improved between 2009–2012, compared to 2004–2008 due to less rain and flow entering Lake Okeechobee and changes to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule to reduce high stages.
    • Nutrient concentrations reduced 20% or more.
    • Nearshore submerged aquatic vegetation increased by 12,200 acres.
    • Increased healthy periphyton (algae) communities.
  • Recommendation: Storage projects, such as dispersed water management envisioned in the Lake Okeechobee watershed project, completion of the aquifer storage and recovery technical report, Kissimmee River Restoration (construction/operations), and optimization of the Lake Regulation Schedule (operations) will all help to meet CERP water quantity, timing, and distribution goals during wet years and realize ecological restoration for the lake and Northern Estuaries ecological restoration.

Northern Estuaries 

  • Although high flow discharge events from Lake Okeechobee have contributed to the estuarine habitat damage in the Northern Estuaries in WY 2004 and WY 2005, new data indicate that supplemental low flows to the St. Lucie Estuary during extremely dry years, especially when they occur back-to-back, may be needed to maintain healthy oyster populations in the middle estuary.  
  • Recommendations: Indian River Lagoon - South (under construction) development of operational plan development should incorporate low flow requirements to support estuary restoration. The C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir project (awaiting authorization) will greatly improve low flows to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary once constructed and operational.

Greater Everglades

  • Long-term trends of fish biomass have declined over the past three decades in portions of WCA 3A, WCA 3B, and Everglades National Park.
  • Periphyton communities continue to indicate altered hydrology and nutrient conditions in WCA 3A and the eastern edge of Everglades National Park.
  • Greater than 50% loss of tree islands in Shark River Slough of Everglades National Park between 1954 and 2004, similar to WCA 3 trends.
  • Recommendation: Approval, authorization, and implementation of the Central Everglades Planning Project will supply additional water to dry areas of the system (e.g. Northern WCA 3A, WCA 3B, Shark River Slough and Florida Bay), reducing severe fires and improving hydrology. This will lead to improvements in periphyton, vegetation, wildlife populations including small fish and invertebrates, wading birds and alligators, and ridge and slough landscapes.

Southern Coastal Systems

  • Florida Bay salinity conditions moved further from restoration targets over the past 4 years compared to the 2009 SSR.
  • Large patches of dead seagrass were observed in western and central Florida Bay.
  • Recommendation: Central Everglades Planning Project implementation and operations that consider the need for water flow into the dry season will improve salinity and ecological (submerged aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, and fish) conditions in Florida Bay and avoid harm in Biscayne Bay.

Restoration Improvements
There were demonstrated restoration improvements in certain ecosystem indicators as a result of restoration projects being constructed and operational over the past 4 to 5 years:

  • Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Project: Hydrology improved in the operational Deering Estate Flow-way portion of the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands expedited project.
  • Picayune Strand Restoration Project: Picayune Strand showed higher water levels near the filled Prairie Canal (1 to 2 feet higher) and vegetation is starting to show signs of improvement, moving closer to reference conditions.
  • Central and Southern Florida Project Operations: Roseate spoonbill nesting improved, most likely due to favorable climatic conditions and better real-time environmental coordination with water management operational decisions. 
  • C-111 South Dade: Hydroperiods were 50 days longer (on an annual average basis) along the eastern edge of Everglades National Park as a result of the C-111 South Dade project and extended rainfall.
  • Cape Sable Canal Plugging: Crocodile nesting and population trends increased due to Cape Sable plug restoration projects (over past two decades).

In summary, continued trends (2009–2013) in altered hydrology and degraded ecology across the system necessitates the need for CERP restoration projects to move forward, while continuing to provide flood protection and water supply for more than 7.9 million people in south Florida. Initial restoration successes from implementing CERP and non-CERP projects (C-111 South Dade, Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Projects, Picayune Strand Restoration, and Central and Southern Florida Project Operations) demonstrate the value of incremental restoration actions. Authorizing, constructing, and operating more CERP restoration projects (Indian River Lagoon - South, Lake Okeechobee watershed storage, C-43 West Basin Storage Reservoir, aquifer storage and recovery, Picayune Strand Restortaion Project, Broward County Water Preserve Areas, and Central Everglades Planning Project) will allow future SSRs to demonstrate incremental achievement of systemwide restoration goals and objectives.

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