As of Aug. 28, the new Combined Operational Plan provides the framework for delivering water in southern Florida. Three ways South Floridians will benefit:

• Everglades National Park will receive more clean fresh water, especially in the dry season when it is most needed. This will create a healthier Everglades.

• The agricultural community in the Redlands will receive better flood protection.

• The new water plan will help maintain the water supply for people living in both Miami Dade and Monroe Counties.

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We have some good news to share.

Everglades National Park is about to get more, clean fresh water, particularly in the dry season. In fact, the distribution of fresh water all across southern Florida is about to change for the better with a new plan born from the collaboration of government agencies, including the National Park Service, tribal nations and stakeholder groups.

Known as the Combined Operational Plan, this set of rules will guide water delivery across South Florida. As of August 28, 2020, water managers will use this playbook to decide where, when, and how much water to distribute. And unlike previous water plans, this new set of rules will base water management decisions on the availability of water north of the park.

The Combined Operational Plan is possible because of completed Everglades Restoration projects that built the infrastructure needed to move water.

For example, recently raised parts of Tamiami Trail allow more water to flow into Everglades National Park. Then, giant structures known as seepage walls were put into the ground to keep the water in the park and prevent it from flooding nearby communities. Projects such as these allow us to now move more water south towards the park, while making sure surrounding urban areas and farms do not flood.

I recently interviewed Jed Redwine, an Ecologist at Everglades National Park, who has been working on the new plan for the past three years. He talked to me about what the Combined Operational Plan means for the average South Floridian and why he’s so excited about the future of Everglades National Park. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Can you briefly explain what the Combined Operational Plan does?

The Combined Operational Plan (COP) defines the rules for how we move water in response to rainfall across Everglades National Park and the area located just north of the park called Water Conservation Area 3. We are implementing COP now because we recently completed many flood management infrastructure projects [canals, levees, and structures] that allow us to better manage flooding. Now we can operate the water management system in a way that creates better outcomes for the environment while still protecting people’s homes, farms, and businesses from flooding.

How does a person who lives in South Florida benefit from the Combined Operational Plan?

There are many ways the average person will benefit. The agricultural community in the Redlands area of Miami will receive better flood protection. COP will also reduce the risk of saltwater intrusion, particularly in the South Dade wells that deliver fresh water to the Florida Keys. This will help maintain the water supply for people living in both Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. The new water plan will create a healthier Everglades, which will in turn create more recreational opportunities. It will drive economic activity by bringing more tourists to the area. Residents of southern Florida will be able to experience a healthier Everglades National Park that will look more similar to the way it was before the 20th century, with more fish and wading birds present.

So what exactly will change on August 28th when the plan is officially implemented?

We’ve been testing the new infrastructure since 2015, and as a result we have a pretty good idea of how to move water when there’s a lot of it available. Right now, we are in the wet season and the Everglades ecosystem has a lot of water, so we won’t see much change since we have already adopted many of the COP operations for wet conditions.

You will really start to see the benefits of the new plan when there’s less water available during the dry season [December through April]. The South Florida Water Management District [State of Florida agency] has developed a new formula called the Tamiami Trail Flow Formula that will deliver more water to Everglades National Park in the dry season, especially to Northeast Shark River Slough.

Can you explain more what this delivery of fresh water in the dry season will mean for Everglades National Park?

The Everglades ecosystem as a whole will benefit from receiving some water during the dry season. For example, a slow but steady delivery of water to the park during the dry season will create concentrated pools of fish for young wading birds to eat. Continued flow of water into the park will decrease the chance of severe wildfires by ensuring soils don’t get too dry. More flow of water into the park during the dry season will also help maintain a core area of permanently inundated, or flooded, wetlands and create the conditions necessary for lots of prey, or food, for fish to eat. This will in turn ensure that Florida Bay continues to be among the most productive fisheries in the United States.

And how does the Tamiami Trail formula help ensure water delivery to the park during dry conditions?

The new COP increases the amount of time that a minimum flow of water is delivered to the park. Water managers can also change how they operate the water system during extreme rainfall or drought events. They can do this using the Tamiami Trail formula, which allows them to make real-time decisions about water delivery based on rainfall and how much water is available in the region. Water will now flow in a way that more closely matches historic patterns, with a gradual increase of water levels in the park as the wet season starts in May, and then a slow dry down starting around December.

Can you tell me a little more about what goes into developing a huge plan like this?

Whenever we're talking about water operations, they can become quite complex very quickly. So we don't just rely on our imaginations. We build these things called regional scale hydrologic models. The South Florida Water Management District and Army Corps of Engineers have created computer simulations that describe how the system functions at a given point in time.

Each simulation process usually takes two or three months. Then we review it, we learn from it, and we arrange a new set of simulations to enhance the outcomes. We went through four iterations, or repetitions, and it took us three years to complete the simulations and develop the Environmental Impact Statement that has been reviewed many times.

For example, for one simulation, we take the actual rainfall that we observed across the region between Jan. 1, 1965, all the way through Dec. 31, 2005. We describe how much rainfall was observed each day, how that water moved through the water management structures, and what the water surface looked like across the region.

This is a big process that involves a lot of people. There are fifty to sixty people involved from the government agencies and tribal nations. Hundreds of people from the public and stakeholder organizations are also participating. They carefully track what we're doing and critically review the results that we get.

Wow. That’s a lot of people who have to all sign off on the plan. Did everyone support the final COP?

Everybody from the government agencies accepted the final COP. Some groups are concerned that it didn’t go far enough with delivering water. This is the central challenging issue with managing the watershed. Everyone is affected by the behavior of the watershed but in different ways. For some people, flood protection is absolutely the priority and it's connected to their ability to economically survive. For other people, they completely rely on the health of the Everglades ecosystem for their livelihood. The public process is very important for helping us all recognize what's possible to achieve with the regional system. I think that everybody is in agreement that our next steps for Everglades Restoration will build on this new water plan and will further enhance the condition of South Florida.

You’ve mentioned that the water plan will change as Everglades Restoration projects are completed. Going forward, what improvements would you like to see with water management in South Florida?

We had to set boundaries and limits on our planning process because of the water budget, or the amount of water we have available in the system. So we weren't able to take advantage of any additional water moving into Water Conservation Area 3 from Lake Okeechobee. This did put limits on how much water reaches Florida Bay, which is the ultimate recipient of fresh water flow in the southern Florida peninsula. I would like to see a larger water budget in the future so we can make sure more water gets to Florida Bay.

How do we expand the water budget and get more water to Florida Bay?

There are two ways we expand the water budget for the regional system. First, if we're in an emergency flood condition, we need to be able to keep more of that water in the system and limit how much water we send to the ocean through canals. This approach to increasing the water budget usually requires installation of restoration projects or land use changes in flood-sensitive areas. Second, you can expand the water budget by connecting more parts of the landscape. We can do that by enhancing the connection between Lake Okeechobee and Water Conservation Area 3 so that more water is delivered to Everglades National Park.

With the completion of several other Everglades Restoration projects in the upcoming years, I am hopeful we can focus on increasing the water budget and making modifications to COP that increase water flow to the park, which will ultimately increase the amount of fresh water making it to Florida Bay.

Last question. What are you happiest about with this new water management plan?

We were able to really maximize both water delivery to the park and flood control for surrounding communities. We showed through modeling that we can keep Northeast Shark River Slough flooded almost year-round for up to 60 percent of the upcoming years. This will dramatically benefit the Everglades ecosystem and we may even see plants such as white waterlilies thriving in Northeast Shark Slough for the first time in forty years. We can deliver all that water to the park. And we can still effectively provide flood protection for the farms and residences in Miami-Dade.

I’m very happy with that result.

Read the full Combined Operational Plan here:

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