The Putrefied Forest

Southwest Florida Water Management District's practice of storing agricultural water in the Myakka River Watershed is killing the trees and destroying wildlife habitat. Plans are in place to alleviate but not solve the problem.

It's spring, but the trees that 10 years ago canopied Flatford Swamp cast no shade; they display no bud, no flower, and no crown of leaves. Lifeless tree trunks not yet felled rise from the drenched earth, their branches twisted and spastic, like arthritic bones. They are the victims of an ill-conceived water management plan that has changed the face of this approximately 2,500-acre swamp in east Manatee County. The Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud), one of five legislatively appointed districts in the state, purchased 2,357 acres of the Flatford Swamp in 1992 as a function of its responsibility to provide safe water and protect natural systems in its 16-county jurisdiction, which stretches north to south from Levy to Charlotte and east to west from Pinellas to Polk counties.

According to its own Upper Myakka River Watershed Resource Evaluation (1991), just before the purchase, the district explained that Flatford Swamp was pristine, a 'unique area of forest important to the region for its excellent wildlife habitat, undisturbed and in overall excellent condition." In addition, the district intended to secure a role for the site in 'detaining and filtering runoff from nearby agricultural lands." This turned out to be a destructive purpose for the swamp because according to Swiftmud's own 1998 study Tree Mortality Assessment of the Upper Myakka River Watershed, the trees drowned from too much irrigation water, and the wildlife has all but disappeared.

As far back as the 1970s, the swamp has absorbed agricultural water, but in the late 1980s and 1990s, the amount of runoff into the swamp and into the Myakka River Watershed dramatically increased. And with the exception of farms then and now out of compliance with their water-use permits, Swiftmud has approved every drop. For modest fees, the district issues all water-use permits in 16 counties for agricultural, commercial, industrial or residential purposes.

The Tree Mortality Assessment found that many thousand mixed hardwood trees, including laurel oaks, Carolina ash, tupelos, live oaks, red maple, slash pine and black gum, were either stressed or had died from excessive runoff, particularly during the dry season (November-May), when rainfall is low and the swamp normally has its drying out period. Thus, the needs of the watershed habitat and the needs of the row crops clash in a regulatory battlefield stacked in favor of the crops. The swamp hasn't been dry in 15 years, to say nothing of the rising water table in the Myakka River Watershed and State Park.

For example, in another part of the watershed, the Maple Branch Swamp, which comprises part of the 225 acres of the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, a privately owned preserve and educational institution since 1973, has witnessed, among other vanishings, the disappearance of a red maple tree canopy that 10 years ago shaded its long, serpentine boardwalk. Where there was once shade, now there's sunlight, water, mud, cattails, willow, and invasive vines and weeds covering what should be dry season under-story. Despite the tree mortality, Crowley's manager Debbie Dixon remains optimistic about the future of the swamp. 'They have to fix the problem," she says, referring to Swiftmud. She says she believes the current problems will be instructive for the next generation.

But the problem extends beyond Flatford and Crowley. As early as 1998, the district determined that 101 acres of mixed hardwoods in the north Myakka State Park had also come under stress or were dead. Currently, the trees surrounding row croplands south of Flatford Swamp on Clay Gully Road show similar symptoms.

The die-off has crept into private property as well. Pat Galliger lives on Long Creek, which feeds into the swamp. She says two of her acres have dead or dying trees on them. Seven years ago, she says, the acreage was 'seasonally wet and dry, and now it's full to the brim" with water during the dry month of April. 'I haven't done anything about it," she says. 'I'm just watching them (the trees) die, but maybe I should."

Many people are concerned about the die-off. Chris Becker, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) environmental specialist for the Myakka State Park, believes the entire watershed, Myakka State Park, and its wildlife could be 'severely threatened."

But the waters continue to flow. According to its 2002 watershed reports, Swiftmud has approved 81 consumptive water-use permits that allow 67-million gallons of water per day to be pumped up from the ground within the Upper Myakka Watershed. Swiftmud estimates 8-million to 12-million gallons per day of excess water run into the swamp; the larger watershed absorbs the remaining excess, which the district has not quantified. Moreover, much of this ground water usage occurs within a 'most impacted area," or MIA. The MIA is part of the larger Eastern Tampa Bay Water Use Caution Area, so designated because of water shortages and rapid draw-downs on underground water. The draw-downs help encourage intrusion of undesirable saltwater, sulfates, chlorides, and solids into the aquifers that provide 80 percent of Swiftmud's water supply, including drinking water.