The Corkscrew Basin Science Forum highlights the health of wetlands

Healthy wetlands retain water during heavy rains.  They also protect water quality, recharge aquifers, and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.  RENEE WILSON / AUDUBON

Healthy wetlands retain water during heavy rains. They also protect water quality, recharge aquifers, and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. RENEE WILSON / AUDUBON

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary hosted the Corkscrew Basin Science Forum on May 12. This annual event, initiated by Audubon staff in 2015, encourages scientists, engineers, land managers, and others working in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) to share their work with colleagues, policy staff, decision makers and volunteers. CREW Land & Water Trust was established in 1989 as a not-for-profit organization to coordinate land acquisition, land management and public use of the 60,000 acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem watershed. The watershed encompasses parts of Lee and Collier counties and includes Corkscrew Marsh, Bird Rookery Swamp, Flint Pen Strand, Camp Keais Strand, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Corkscrew Basin Science Forum: More than 70 environmental professionals attended the 2023 forum, the first since 2019. Along with scientific presentations, the event encouraged participants to share resources and discuss opportunities for future collaboration across the basin . Topics included nuisance brush management, mammal monitoring, using drones to answer ecological questions, and more.

Water Restoration: A Forum Focus – The event kicked off with presentations that provided an update on efforts to restore regional water levels. Prior to the mid-2000s, local wetlands held water through the entire “dry” winter season in most years, but development downstream of CREW has caused too much water to flow off the landscape, threatening the wildlife habitat and makes the region more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

Addressing this problem began with a modeling study, conducted by Water Science Associates and funded by Audubon and the South Florida Water Management District. After completing the model in 2021, Audubon and the District continued to increase water level monitoring and collect additional data that will ultimately guide restoration efforts.

Brad Jackson, Principal Engineer for the District, described the history of this collaborative effort, including progress on a new modeling tool to be completed later this year. This tool will allow water managers to develop a comprehensive plan to balance competing water needs and ultimately restore freshwater flows to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Bird Rookery Swamp.

Wood Storks in the Western Everglades: A presentation by event organizer Shawn Clem, Ph.D., Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s director of research and acting director of conservation, illustrated how wood storks’ use of this habitat has diminished over time. Historically, tens of thousands of Wood Storks nested in Southwest Florida, arriving in October to begin the nesting season. Moving west to east across the landscape as water levels dropped, Wood Storks began nesting in our region because the shallow wetlands in this area were most accessible in the fall months when most of the system of the Everglades was still under water. As the dry season begins, they traveled further east and into Everglades National Park.

However, over the last 50 years, tens of thousands of nests in Southwest Florida have been reduced to a few hundred birds. Storks feed on small fish that breed in shallow, grassy wetlands and need deeper water to survive the dry season. The availability of these fish drives the nesting success of the Wood Stork. As “non-nesting” years became more common in the Sanctuary, colonies began to form on Lenore Island (in the Caloosahatchee River) and near Big Cypress Preserve. While the USFWS recovery goal for South Florida is 2,500 pairs, we are not there yet. The birds have moved north out of their historic range and are increasing nesting everywhere except the Everglades. However, we don’t know if these new nesting outposts will survive in the long term, and it is risky to rely on them for the health of the entire Wood Stork population.

Why this matters: An underlying theme throughout the event was the need to conserve and protect Southwest Florida’s remaining wetland habitats, particularly shallow wetlands. We need healthy wetlands to protect water quality, recharge aquifers, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, and retain water during heavy rains. Luckily, the synergies created during the event will continue to grow; Ultimately, these partnerships work to make our region more resilient. ¦