Long-Running Story: Restoring Everglades

Photos by Tim Chapman

Control of Flooding Hurt Natural Balance

The Everglades, with its millions of acres of Florida wetlands, has endured more than a century of human and corporate encroachment.

Now scientists and politicians are working together to restore the dense and lush wildlife habitat of this unique tropical and coastal environment.

Many of those involved are cautiously optimistic, warning that it won’t be easy to overcome funding and political hurdles before it’s too late.

“The Everglades includes about 12 different habitats ranging from the sawgrass marshes to pine forests,” said Everglades National Park Ranger Greg Litten, noting that the park is home to most of Florida’s famous alligators and has the largest concentration of wading birds in the United States.

The alligator, in fact, may be the species that symbolizes what can be done to restore endangered wildlife.

Hunters pushed the breed close to extinction in South Florida by over-harvesting to satisfy consumer hunger for exotic shoes and handbags. When alligator hunting was prohibited, the alligators bounced back as the cultural and visual icon of the region.

But, as researcher Rudolf Jaffe notes, alligators are only part of the Everglades story of adaptation and change.

When the population in South Florida started to grow, “every time a big storm or hurricane hit South Florida, communities were flooded from the waters of the Everglades,” said Jaffe, a professor and environmental researcher in the Southeast Environment Research Center at Florida International University.

In the 1930s, the government designed a flood control system that included a series of canals that drained water from the Everglades and helped promote agriculture.

“As a result, a lot of the fresh water supply to the Everglades was lost and sent to the ocean, and the Everglades started to dry up,” Jaffe said.

Litten called the changes in water quality “dramatic.”

“The government has changed the quantity, quality and timing of the water flow, so it doesn’t interfere with human development and farming,” Litten said.

In the 1970s, national and international attention turned to environmental issues after The Convention on Wetlands, a treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran, called on member countries to conserve and sustain their wetlands. The treaty designated Florida’s Everglades as an area of global importance.

But it was not until 2000 that the federal government developed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a strategy for water recovery and storage. The restoration plan includes 60 construction projects spread out over 30 years to store water in reservoirs and underground aquifers. The plan also will regulate water released from pumping stations and improve the quality of water released into the Everglades.

“The restoration program addressed changes that have caused damage to the water flow, which moves fresh water through the Everglades and down to the aquifer,” Litten said.

The restoration plan calls for removing some canals and building new ones in other parts of the Everglades. The complex program “is like a jigsaw puzzle,” Litten said. “You got to get all the pieces in the right place, but you got to do it in the right order for the plan to be successful.”

Jaffe agrees. “The government is restoring higher water flow to direct more fresh water to the Everglades instead of dumping it out to the ocean,” he said.

The Everglades protects the aquifer that provides fresh water to four million people in South Florida.

“To put it simply: no Everglades, no fresh water for everybody in South Florida,” Litten said.

Everglades restoration is moving slowly. “It is not going as it was planned in 2000 because of budget cuts,” said Jay Sah, an associate research scientist at the Southeast Environment Research Center. The restoration plan includes many projects and is very expensive, but funding is still in question, he noted.

The plan is expected to generate many economic benefits for South Florida. “The Everglades National Park provides recreational services for residents and brings tourism,” Jaffe said. The plan is designed to enhance recreation, tourism and commercial fishing, he said, adding that the improvements are expected to contribute to the long term viability of the Everglades. #


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