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Death of a forest

Hardwood swamps are drowning because of runoff from irrigated farms, up to 12-million gallons daily.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Nancy Pike, front, and Jane Frederickson of Sarasota walk through a section of dying trees at Crowley Nature Center.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2000


OLD MYAKKA -- Debbie Dixon stood on the boardwalk behind the Crowley Nature Center, shading her eyes and surveying an environmental disaster. The boardwalk, which stretches 2,000 feet into a swamp near the Myakka River, used to be completely shaded by majestic old hardwood trees: popash, tupelo, oak and red maple.

Now the boardwalk bakes in the sun. The trees are dead. A few withered trunks still claw at the sky, but most have collapsed. The most recent victim, a maple with a trunk 4 feet wide, toppled a few weeks ago, leaving a fungus-covered, waterlogged stump.

As for the wildlife that used to thrive in the shadows of the vanished forest, Dixon, the nature center director, snorted and said, "What wildlife?"

All along the upper Myakka, across thousands of acres in Sarasota and Manatee counties, an estimated 100,000 trees are dead or dying, including some in Myakka River State Park. Some of the worst damage is in a heart-shaped wetland called the Flatford Swamp, where three-fourths of the trees are dead.

The cause of death: drowning.

photo
Across thousands of acres in Sarasota and Manatee counties, an estimated 100,000 trees are dead or dying because of farm runoff, scientists say.
Experts say that over the past decade the area's farmers -- wasting water when everyone was supposed to be conserving -- poured up to 12-million gallons a day of excess water into the Myakka's hardwood swamps.

In the early 1990s, before the damage was so widespread, cattleman Garret Barnes says he warned the Southwest Florida Water Management District about what was happening in Flatford Swamp. To him, the problem was so obvious you could wade up to your chest in it.

A hardwood swamp is not supposed to stay wet all the time. The trees need the months from October to May to dry out their roots before the summer rains inundate them again. But Barnes had noticed that during what was supposed to be the dry season, a lot of water was running through Flatford, water that had run off the fields. The trees were soaking in the runoff all year long, year after year.

"It used to be the most beautiful place you can imagine," said Barnes, whose Rocking 7 Ranch encompasses part of Flatford. "There were 100-year-old oak tree hammocks. Now it's just dead stumps and cattails. . . . Not even the frogs can live in it."

Although Swiftmud recently tossed the drowning trees a lifeline of sorts, Dixon says it's too little, too late to save the nature center's dying forest.

"It will never be restored in my lifetime," she said. "It's getting worse and worse. . . . The amount of time it's taken to get to this point is ridiculous. People knew what was happening and nothing was done."

* * *

Throughout the 250 square miles of the upper Myakka River watershed, more than 70 farms grow squash, peppers, cucumbers, even sod. Tomatoes are the biggest crop. Manatee County produces more tomatoes than any other Florida county.

In the 1990s, as the suburbs of Sarasota and Bradenton encroached on farmland near Interstate 75, many farmers sold their land to developers and started over on land closer to the Myakka.

Like farmers all over Florida, the Myakka farmers irrigate their crops during the dry months by pumping water from deep wells that tap the underground aquifer. For instance, Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. pumps up to 4-million gallons a day from underground and then pours it through small furrows that cross its 3,200 acres.

Flooding the fields that way is the cheapest irrigation method, Barnes said, so that's what most farmers do, even though a lot of water runs off the farms into drainage ditches, creeks and swamps.

Water district officials have known all along that a lot of unused water was running off the farmers' fields, but said in one report that Swiftmud "does not consider this a waste of water" because "this water helps sustain existing wetland ecosystems which are beneficial to fish and wildlife."

From 1992 to 1998 -- when Swiftmud's own scientists confirmed Barnes' warnings -- Swiftmud issued 15 new permits for Myakka farmers to pump water for irrigation and renewed 45 more, with no requirement they be more frugal with their water.

"There wasn't a lot of evaluation because the rules didn't allow for it," said Scott Laidlaw, Swiftmud's water use permit manager.

By 1998, Swiftmud was allowing Myakka farmers to pump up to 73-million gallons of water a day out of the ground and onto their crops. Scientists later determined that during the dry season, 12-million gallons of that was then flooding into the hardwood swamps every day -- nearly double the daily amount consumed by Sarasota's 150,000 utilities customers.

The tree die-off "wouldn't have been a problem if Swiftmud had bitten the bullet and restrained the farmers," said environmental activist Gloria Rains of ManaSota-88. "If you can tell me a time Swiftmud ever turned down a permit for an agricultural operation, I'd be surprised. They don't have the political will to do what's required."

Meanwhile, water has been in such short supply in Manatee and Sarasota counties that Swiftmud has included them in a "water-use caution area." Overpumping by big users even dried up some small private wells -- including the one providing water to Debbie Dixon's house in Sarasota.

"It makes me really angry when I see the amount of water that's being pumped (for the farms) and the little that's being done to monitor what they're doing," Dixon said. "It's criminal."

* * *

By 1996, so many trees had died, the problem could not be ignored. Swiftmud sent biologist Dave Tomasko and a team of other scientists into Flatford to find out what was happening. They found the die-off spreading rapidly, in three years tripling the area it affected.

The source of the excess water was "rather obvious," Tomasko said. The water contained chemical signatures showing it was not rain but had been pumped from underground.

Environmental activists urged the water board to force the farmers to change to more efficient irrigation methods. They pointed out the water district's rules forbid the farmers to harm the environment.

But Swiftmud officials have moved very gingerly, fearing any move to forcibly cut agricultural pumping would hurt the farmers' crop production and lead to lawsuits. Swiftmud's leaders opted instead to enlist the farmers' cooperation.

"We said, "Let's not get into a situation where we end up making enemies of the growers out there,' " said Swiftmud conservation director Gregg Jones. Barnes, the cattleman, said he and his neighbors are happy that Swiftmud has not forced immediate cutbacks.

But the cooperative approach has been slow to show results. As farmers' pumping permits have come up for renewal, the water agency's staff has persuaded them to agree to trim only 4-million gallons off their irrigation. The daily maximum the Myakka farmers are allowed to pump still hovers just below the 70-million gallon mark.

"They're still permitting a lot of water use in the driest time of the year, and we're still seeing trees die," said Becky Ayech of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

Meanwhile, water officials recently cut deals with two growers, Pacific Tomato and Falkner Farms, to split the cost of a multimillion-dollar experiment: irrigating their crops with some of the excess water from the Flatford Swamp. A Pacific official said the company was happy to help as long as the experiment did not impose too much of a financial burden.

"Our goal is to pump that water out of the swamp and dry it out," Jones said.

Swiftmud officials also talked of shipping the excess swamp water to a phosphate mine or the local utility, but so far have no other deals lined up.

Even if Swiftmud succeeds in sucking all the excess water out, that still leaves the question of repairing the environmental damage. For now, Swiftmud officials are hoping seeds from the dead forests will produce their own resurrection. Dixon and others question whether that will happen without an expensive replanting effort.

Along the nature center boardwalk this spring, slender young maples shot out from around their ruined ancestors, putting out hopeful leaves. But Dixon has seen these spring promises fall short before. The young trees drown just like the old ones.

"They keep trying to come back," she said, "but they never make it."

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