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Uncertain Future For Apalachicola, Ocklawaha, Shark River Slough

Armando Vilaboy standing on the slough
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
Portions of Tamiami Trail are being raised on extensive bridging to allow more of Shark River Slough to flow into Everglades National Park. But old, original portions of Tamiami Trail roadbed must still be removed to allow more slough water to flow into the park. Armando Vilaboy, government-relations representative for the South Florida Water Management District, visited areas where slough water is escaping across the old roadbed as a preview of a much larger flow to come.

Restoration of Florida’s Apalachicola River, Ocklawaha River and Shark River Slough for years has been debated, fought over and delayed by courts, politics, cities and agriculture.

The status of the three remains mixed and uncertain, as are their prospects for tolerating a changing climate already revealing its dangers with the current spree of Florida’s and the planet’s hottest years on record.

Environmental experts fear that the sickly will fail in the face of rising sea levels, droughts and punishing storms.

“As with any illness, the health of the body determines survival,” said Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator.

Shark River Slough

Perhaps the waterway with the brightest outlook is the Shark River Slough.

Near the Shark Valley visitor center in the Everglades National Park, miles of the original, crumbling Tamiami Trail roadbed are slated for removal. It holds back water of Shark River Slough that comes under newly bridged portions of the modern Tamiami Trail.

Not to be defeated, tendrils of slough water have been snaking across the old road, runners escaping into the park. It’s an arresting visual of the hopes and dreams for Everglades restoration -- sending more water into the park.

Water-control structure with water in the foreground
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
A vast array of water-control structures must be built to ensure significant water flow into Shark River Slough. One of those structures, the recently expanded S-333 complex, is north of the slough and near newly constructed Tamiami Trail bridging.

“We want to re-create the historic sheet flow,” said Armando Vilaboy of the South Florida Water Management District.

East of the visitor center is a newly built hulk of concrete, a flood gate that will boost water flowing under Tamiami Trail bridges. It is one of billions of dollars worth of structures – walls, pumps, gates and reservoirs – required to mimic the Glade’s sheet flow.

Billions of dollars in government support is not unrealistic. The drive for restoring South Florida’s world-class treasure has support on critical fronts and is magnitudes beyond any other environmental restoration in the state.

“Everglades restoration is doing well in election years,” said Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, a senior director at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Robert Spottswood, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of Everglades and Shark River Slough restoration, acknowledges that restoring the water flow is “so, so complicated.”

Nevertheless, “I’m really, really encouraged,” he said.

Road view of The Shark Valley of Everglades National Park
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
The Shark Valley of Everglades National Park features a loop road for hiking, cycling and tram rides through the scenic Shark River Slough. Marjory Stoneman Douglas published “The Everglades, River of Grass” in 1947. The grandeur she captured is still visible from Shark Valley. “There is no other Everglades in the world,” Douglas wrote. “The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below … It is the river of grass.”

But Mary Barley, an Everglades Foundation leader, said “it’s too early to tell.” Her husband, Everglades warrior George Barley, was killed 25 years ago in an Orlando plane crash on the way to an Everglades meeting.

“You cannot ever let up on the gas, because if you do, you lose,” Barley said.

Restoration has evolved since before Marjory Stoneman Douglas published “The Everglades, River of Grass” in 1947. A sense of the grandeur she captured is still visible from a tower at Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley, the cradle of Shark River Slough.

Sawgrass prairie in muted tones, glittering pockets of water and tree islands extend to the horizons.

“The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below,” Douglas wrote. “It is the river of grass.”

Phillip Greenwalt, supervisory ranger at Shark Valley, specialized in historical parks before he considered transferring to the Glades. He climbed the tower and realized: “I get it.”

Success will key on the quality of additional water coming into the park. It is so necessarily pristine, said park scientist Damon Rondeau, that it evades detection.

“We use instrumentation that is acoustic, that bounces a signal like a sonar, and sometimes the water is so clear it doesn’t give enough feedback,” he said.

Damon Rondeau on an airboat
Damon Rondeau, a supervisory hydrologist with Everglades National Park, pauses during a tour of Shark River Slough, observing Tamiami Trail bridging and monitoring stations. He explained that water moving through the slough is so pristine it is sometimes difficult to measure with electronic instruments.

Restoration will become harder, said Celeste De Palma, who was Audubon’s Everglades director until recently and is now pursuing a graduate degree in environmental studies.

“Getting these projects funded, designed and constructed is actually the easiest part,” she said. “Once you have those pieces in the ground, now comes the real challenge of making sure they do what they were intended.”

Apalachicola River

Nearly 100 miles away from the Apalachicola River’s start at Jim Woodruff Dam, it widens into a knitting of swamp, creeks and hidden lakes. The expanse extends south to East Bay, joining the larger Apalachicola Bay, which connects to the Gulf of Mexico.

Georgia Ackerman driving a boat
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, checks on conditions along of waters of the river’s final stretch at the Apalachicola Bay.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s Georgia Ackerman idled her boat through a skinny branch not far from the city of Apalachicola but suggesting a lost world. With a turn south, she pulled up to a nearly 30-foot tower standing in water. It is a remote station of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The tower is equipped to sense nearly everything physical: sea level, elevation of the river bottom, storms, temperatures and more.

“The hope is the data are a neutral information source to better understand how conditions may be changing,” said Jenna Harper, manager of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.

There is much to watch for.

The Supreme Court may soon make a pivotal ruling in the tri-state legal war over Apalachicola waters, and whether too much of it goes to Georgia and Alabama for a variety of uses. Florida officials blame the diminished flow of the river for increasing salinity in Apalachicola Bay and the decimation of the oysters that had supported a Panhandle economy.

A recommendation last year by the court’s investigator does not bode well for Florida. The state, he wrote, has not upheld its legal argument for being denied a fair share of river water.

A nearly 30-foot tower standing in water near the Apalachicola River
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
A nearly 30-foot tower standing in water near the Apalachicola River is a remote-sensing station of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. It measures nearly everything physical: sea level, elevation of the river bottom, storms, temperatures and more.

“It looks like it’s about to be a sad ending,” said Greg Munson, a Tallahassee lawyer and former deputy secretary with the Department of Environmental Protection. Munson said Florida had little choice but to turn to the Supreme Court.

“If you look at the flows in the Apalachicola, they’ve dropped year after year after year and little bit by little bit,” Munson said. “The worst result from the litigation was not going to be worse than what you would get to ultimately.”

Another lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation and Apalachicola Riverkeeper, alleges that the Corps of Engineers violates environmental laws with its plan for managing the flows in the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers.

Time for the legal fighting is running out, said Chris Manganiello of the Chattahootchee Riverkeeper in Atlanta. “The situation with the Apalachicola is untenable.”

Gil Rogers, a director with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center, said the best course may be renewed negotiations for a political settlement between the three states.

“Water management is becoming more of a challenge, with climate change, floods and longer and more severe droughts and floods,” Rogers said. “All three of the states that share this system have an obligation to make sure they can do everything possible to keep the system healthy.”

But Apalachicola River restoration has not stalled completely.

Work to reverse damage by the Corps of Engineers dredging is being done in waters overgrown with vegetation, using small boats, hand tools and grit, the realm of an oysterman.

Apalachicola Bay has been bereft of its famed oysters for years, and on Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ordered it closed to harvesting for the next five years as an attempt to restore the shellfish. Oystermen will be brought on for restoration projects.

The goal is to reestablish connections between the river and floodplain, including targeted areas known as Spiders Cut and Douglas Slough.

Georgia Ackerman stands on the bow of her boat
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
Georgia Ackerman, director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, stands on the bow of her boat, looking out over river marsh along the river’s final section near Apalachicola Bay.

“I describe them as the veins and capillaries that feed the system,” Ackerman said. “Some of them are clogged up pretty badly.”

Her expectation is that the state’s remote-sensing tower will register improvements in water quality.

“The Apalachicola is remarkable and vast and we should be fighting tooth and nail to protect it,” Ackerman said. “The longer we wait for a resolution, the harder the struggle gets.”

Ocklawaha River

Florida Defenders of the Environment members gathered under a blustery, summer day at the dam on the Ocklawaha River at the north end of Ocala National Forest. Group president Jennifer Carr, in a mood mirroring the weather, ticked off her bewilderment and frustration.

The Rodman dam, built for a 50-year life, was finished 52 years ago. Her group has fought 51 years for its dismantling to restore a free-flowing Ocklawaha from Silver Springs to the St. Johns River and Atlantic Ocean.

Water rushes from the downstream side of Rodman Dam along the Ocklawaha River.
Water rushes from the downstream side of Rodman Dam along the Ocklawaha River.

She cited her group’s contentions that the reservoir remains a stubble field of a drowned forest, is unnaturally hot, evaporates prodigious amounts of precious water, is a weed monster, is contaminated with herbicides and is hazardous for most boaters. The reservoir is devoid of the manatees and fish that would otherwise thrive in the river, obliterates 20 springs and is an ongoing wound to the St. Johns River and Silver Springs.

As the granddaughter of the group’s founder, Carr, 33, brought her daughter, Carmen, 6, and wondered if she will one day be president, still fighting the dam.

“It makes me feel like I’m in a third-world country,” Carr said of her view that state leaders are putting petty politics ahead of Ocklawaha stewardship.

As it has for decades, the Florida Defenders of the Environment continues to enlist scientists, lawyers and economists to prove the case for removing the dam and re-establishing the river’s free flow of 155 miles from Silver Springs to the Atlantic.

Jennifer Carr inspects a boat ramp
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
Jennifer Carr, president of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, inspects a boat ramp at the Ocklawaha River’s Rodman Reservoir. Rodman Reservoir is plagued by a chronic growth of muck and floating weeds, as seen here at the boat ramp. Weeds have engulfed the ramp and dock.

The “stimulus-ready project,’ according to the group, would come at a bargain price with a lucrative payoff for Central and North Florida’s environment and ecotourism.

“For what they spend to put a culvert in the Everglades you could restore the Ocklawaha,” said Richard Hamann, a former president and now advisor at the Florida Defenders of the Environment. It’s an exaggeration underscoring a staggering difference in restoration costs: many billions of dollars for the Everglades and a few million for the Ocklawaha.

The newly formed Free the Ocklawaha Coalition has more than 30 members from the state’s far corners. They include 1000 Friends of Florida in Tallahassee, Calusa Waterkeeper in Fort Myers, Friends of the Everglades, Save the Manatee Club in Maitland and Audubon Florida.

“All the pieces are in place,” said Jim Gross, executive director of the Florida Defenders of the Environment and a former state water regulator. “It’s all about pulling the trigger, and our governor could do that.”

Ed Lowe was the top scientist at the St. Johns River Water Management District for more than 30 years. Recently retired, he said it may help to enlist an outside group -- perhaps the National Academy of Sciences -- to independently document reasons to remove the dam.

The Ocklawaha River’s Rodman Reservoir
Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel
The Ocklawaha River’s Rodman Reservoir feels isolated and unworldly.

But to Lowe, there is no doubt about the value of a free-flowing Ocklawaha.

“You are really looking at several superlative ecosystems that are notable worldwide and have had really significant declines,” he said of Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha River, the St. Johns River and its estuary at the Atlantic Ocean.

“All these systems are connected,” Lowe said. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to argue for or against Rodman Reservoir by looking just at the local area. You really have to consider the whole span of these ecosystems.”