Officials, nature drop Everglades water levels, saving wildlife

The water, perilously high a month ago, has retreated, leaving the muck pocked with promising signs: Deer tracks weaving through bay trees and cabbage palms on a tree island deep in the Everglades.

State wildlife Commissioner Ron Bergeron stooped to study the prints, his expert eye detecting none of the tiny cobwebs or flecks of dry vegetation that mark cold, old trails.

"Pretty fresh. It looks like they've just been through.''

The deer have come down from the dikes, where they had been driven from the flooded marsh, and the threat of a major wildlife die-off has receded with the water.

''We're out of the crisis at least,'' said Bergeron, who owns camps in the Everglades and has spent much of his life there.

The politically powerful Broward road builder, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to serve on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, spearheaded an interagency emergency effort that helped relieve the drowning sawgrass prairies west of suburban Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The resulting engineering schemes diverted water from the 700,000-acre conservation area between Alligator Alley and Tamiami Trail and sent it south to a place that desperately needs it -- Everglades National Park. Nature also lent a huge hand.

''The biggest break was rainfall. We've been very dry,'' Susan Sylvester, operations manager for the South Florida Water Management District said. November ranked as the driest on record, she said -- until storms on the last day.

In all, water levels in sprawling Water Conservation Area 3A, the very heart of the River of Grass, have fallen about a foot in a month.

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