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Water loss at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has put wildlife at risk. New research points to the problem


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Scientists studying water loss in a Southwest Florida swamp hope new research showing canals are over-draining wetlands will help inform wetland ecosystem conservation across the state.

After months of modeling efforts, researchers at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary have identified the causes of worrying changes to the ecosystem’s water levels.

Flood management structures and operations south of the sanctuary as well as water withdrawals for agricultural use and public water supply have dried the swamp out faster and kept it too dry for too long each year.

“I think initially I was hoping that it was something that was easier to fix,” said Shawn Clem, research director at the Audubon Florida’s Western Everglades Research Center at the sanctuary. “The fact that it looks like the biggest problem is the canals means that we’re going to have a more challenging solution.”

Previously: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary partners with water managers to restore wetlands

The sanctuary is home to the “largest remaining old-growth bald cypress swamp in the world,” according to a 2019 hydrology report, and long dry periods could shift the ecology of the wetland, leaving wood stork and other wildlife populations without the habitat they need.

Clem and fellow researcher Mike Duever had looked at 60 years’ worth of hydrology data and noticed extended water level decreases between the dry seasons of the ‘90s and ‘00s, despite normal rainfall patterns.

These water losses not only pose a risk to the ecosystem, but increase threats to humans as well, according to a paper released by the researchers following the study.

“These include significant increases of catastrophic wildfire risk in Golden Gate Estates and similar semi-rural communities, degradation of water supply and quality, and increases in harmful algal blooms like red tide and cyanobacteria,” the report says.

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Clem and Audubon Florida's Brad Cornell presented the study findings to the Big Cypress Basin Board during its meeting Thursday.

The two biggest driving factors were the drainage downstream from canals and groundwater pumping. 

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The modeling shows the ability to reduce some of the loss with structures that would help retain water levels. An underground wall made of clay could be built under Bird Rookery Swamp to the south. While the wall can provide some relief, Clem said more work needs to be done to fully restore the swamp.

Other potential solutions include policy strategies, Cornell said during the meeting. 

"The (model) is a very powerful new tool, not only for Audubon, but also for illuminating the regional nature of the problem," he said. "It requires us to work collaboratively with the Big Cypress Basin Board, the South Florida Water Management District, local governments and landowning neighbors to solve the grave challenges for everyone's mutual benefit." 

Some of those policy items Cornell suggested were buying out properties that repeatedly flood, retrofitting old stormwater systems and improving water resources throughout the region.

By the way: Gov. DeSantis appoints three new members to Big Cypress Basin board

Newly reappointed basin board member Dan Waters said it's pretty clear that the sanctuary is at a tipping point and would like to see more data gathering to figure out how the basin's operations affect the water issues it faces.

Clem said they are already working to create better topographic data to give a more detailed information about how the water is moving within the study's boundaries.

After the presentation, the basin board's chairwoman, Charlette Roman, said she would support having the basin's staff look at the sanctuary's findings and do some more analysis.

Did you know?: Manatees dying in droves as poor water quality, sea grass losses lead to starvation

"Maybe the district team can help in identifying what’s needed," Roman said. "We need to have a good, strong collaborative effort to analyze the initial report and map out what we can do moving forward, if anything, to improve hydrology at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary."

The swamp is one of the gems of Southwest Florida, she said, and the basin board has placed importance on the sanctuary within the community.

"Work with experts and come back to us," she told Clem and Cornell.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk