Roadblocks to Restoring the Everglades

The Everglades is a stunning tropical wetland ecosystem in southern Florida that once stretched nearly 3 million acres from just below the city of Orlando all the way down south to the Florida Bay. It is also, however, one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States that is listed as in danger. In recognition of the immense impact the continued degradation of the Everglades would have on humans and wildlife, the region is now also the focus of one of the most ambitious ecosystem restoration plans the world has ever seen.

The Everglades supports wildlife and humans alike. Fifty-six threatened or endangered species, including the Florida panther, the West Indian manatee, the snail kite, and the wood stork, depend on it for survival, and it’s the main source of drinking water for more than 7.7 million South Florida residents. Twenty percent of the original Everglades ecosystem has been protected within Everglades National Park.

But the Everglades is under severe stress due to the diversion of much of its original freshwater flow. This freshwater comes from the Kissimmee River, just outside Orlando which discharges into Lake Okeechobee, a vast and shallow lake that overflows during the wet season forming a 60 mile wide and 100 mile long slow-moving river dominated by sawgrass marsh that flows into the Florida Bay.

In the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers began building a network of water control structures to divert millions of gallons of freshwater from the Everglades, in part to save small towns in the region from flooding during the wet season. Local towns and municipalities, too, dug canals and built levees in order to dry out the marshlands, allowing agricultural and land development interests to appropriate large areas of the Everglades for their own needs.

The diversions — which interrupted the natural flow of the freshwater and forced it to flow directly to coastal towns and cities instead of passing through the Everglades — caused several areas of this unique ecosystem to dry out. As a result, the Everglades is now less than half its original size. 1,800 miles of canals and dams break it up. Meanwhile, nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff and drainage from human habitations, the proliferation of exotic species like Burmese pythons and the Australian pine, and a rising ocean way downstream are further disrupting the delicate balance of the Everglades ecosystem.

In 2000, the state of Florida and the federal government agreed to a plan, known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP), to restore the Everglades’ original water flows. CERP is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world and is estimated to cost $10.5 billion over the next 35 years. If successful, it could revive the imperiled Everglades ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the project has been frequently delayed due to funding arguments. When Congress approved CERP in 2000, it was under a cost sharing agreement: The federal government would foot half the bill, and the other half would be covered by state, local, and tribal agencies. Florida initially outpaced spending by the federal government in order to secure land for restoration efforts, which are being led by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Cutbacks in Florida’s state budget caused the federal government to later incur more of the costs. Since Republican Governor Rick Scott assumed office in 2011, his administration and the Obama administration have disputed the funding agreement, which was initially negotiated by President Bill Clinton and then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Since President Obama took office, the federal government has spent $1.6 billion on the Everglades, and Obama proposed an additional $240 million toward Everglades restoration in 2016. Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott proposed only $150 million for Everglades restoration in his 2016 budget, but in March, the Florida legislature committed to spending at least $250 million annually.

Funding tensions aside, the Everglades restoration project is no small undertaking and will involve diverse projects and efforts, including restoring freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee, which previously fed the Everglades billions of gallons of freshwater a year. A big issue that’s slowing down restoration works, is that Lake Okeechobee’s waters are now highly polluted with phosphorus from fertilizer runoffs. The Everglades’ sawgrass ecosystem, which originally evolved with soils low in phosphorus, is very sensitive to this pollutant. (Phosphorous content in these marshlands was originally 8 to 10 parts per billion but current levels range between 100 and 300 ppb.) Florida is legally restricted from releasing freshwater into the Everglades until phosphorus levels have been brought down and that could take many years to accomplish.

Lake Okeechobee has also been the focus of flooding concerns. (Since much of the freshwater flow in the region is now artificially controlled, water must be released to estuaries to prevent flooding during the wet season. Now south Florida often has too much water in the wet years and not enough in the dry.) Following heavy rains last winter, the Army Corp of Engineers made repeated water discharges to relieve pressure on the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, diverting water east and west to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Dr. Stephen Davis, a wetlands ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, believes that restoring the water flow from Lake Okeechobee would have a profound, positive impact on the Everglades, particularly when it comes to avoiding environmental disasters like the massive sea-grass die off in Florida Bay last year.

“Last summer there were periods of drought where the only freshwater flow coming from the Everglades into Florida Bay was from rainfall,” he said. “The massive sea grass die-off is a perfect example of what restoring freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades would prevent once completed.”

Davis said the restoration of freshwater flow isn’t estimated to occur anytime in the short term, but newly allocated funding from the state of Florida ensures that smaller scale projects can be completed as part of CERP.

US Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-FL), who pushed for emergency measures at the federal level last winter to obtain funding for projects that would alleviate flooding near Lake Okeechobee, has also emphasized the long-term importance of CERP for both the Everglades ecosystem and South Florida residents.

“I remain committed to make sure we move forward on critical projects like the Central Everglades Planning Project that will move more clean water south and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike so more water can be safely stored in the lake, both of which will help reduce the need for discharges east and west,” Congressman Murphy told a local CBS affiliate in South Florida. “These long-term solutions are needed to restore the natural flow of the Everglades south to address a decades-old problem that continues to hurt our community year after year.”

While much remains to be done, important progress has been made. Significant tracts of land necessary for CERP implementation have been acquired, and several pilot projects have been completed.

In February, the South Florida Water Management District restored water flow from areas south of Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park for the first time in decades. If CERP stays on schedule, by the time the plan is completed, supposedly some time around 2030, nearly 75 percent of the original water flow to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee will be restored. CERP partners have also reported progress in terms of restoring wetlands and historic river channels, bringing benefits to local plants and animals, and improving ecosystem health more generally.

It will be decades before we can judge the success of CERP, but the future of the Everglades depends on rapidly removing obstacles to water movement in the “River of Grass” before any more permanent damage is inflicted on one of the world’s most unique, yet fragile, ecosystems.