Lake Okeechobee wading bird population plummets

Lake Okeechobee wading bird populations took a steep decline between 2011 and 2010 due to drought-strained water levels, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

The state counted 2,750 heron, egrets, ibis and other wading birds on the lake in December. That was down from 8,700 wading birds on the lake in December 2010.

Lake Okeechobee in 2011 dropped to its lowest point in three years, following a record-setting drought that came after decisions to release Lake Okeechobee water out to sea for flood control.

The 730-square-mile lake provides vital wildlife habitat and also serves as South Florida’s back-up water supply.

Low lake levels last year dried out marshes that provide prime wildlife habitat.

Lake levels have rebounded, but the long dry period diminished the small fish and other prey species wading birds feed on, sending the birds elsewhere, according to the water management district.

Summer rainfall combined with near-record rains in October washed away South Florida’s drought and boosted Lake Okeechobee water levels.

Lake Okeechobee on Friday was 13.52 feet above sea level. That was about 1 foot higher than this time last year.

The Army Corps of Engineers tries to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level.

The Army Corps of Engineers during 2010 drained more than 300 billion gallons of lake water out to sea to ease the strain on the dike that protects lakeside communities from flooding.

Those lake water releases worsened the water-supply effects of the driest October-to-June stretch on record, which prompted the district to impose emergency watering restrictions from Orlando to the Keys.

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