The Everglades: Addressing Florida’s Water Crisis

everglades mapThe economic balance of the Florida Everglades has recently been thrown off due to expanding agricultural and residential development in the region. The skyrocketing development of Florida’s east coast has shrunk the Everglades to half its original size from the start of the twentieth century leading to the decimation in populations of wildlife found nowhere else in the world including the Florida panther, American alligator, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. The increase in agriculture, particularly in the sugarcane industry, has polluted the water runoff and disrupted the freshwater flows; as a result, Florida Bay has experienced colossal algae blooms altering the Everglade’s complex water chemistry. Despite environmental renewal efforts from volunteers and many federal restoration plans, the Everglades requires continual attention to reverse the effects of over-population while maintaining healthy water quality and levels.

The polluted runoff from nearby sugarcane and other agricultural operations as well as the impinging urban sprawl significantly alters the Everglades’ complex and unique water chemistry. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus added by human activities cause profound imbalances in the Everglade’s water chemistry; thus, altering wildlife habitat and disrupting native plant communities. Invasions of exotic plants, such as Australian Melaleuca, deplete the region’s water resources and displace native species. Everglades National Park, including Florida Bay, is seriously threatened by the water management practices of the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Under the current regime, western portions of the Park experience harmful, prolonged periods of inundationAirboats on the River while eastern portions of the Park are dry throughout the year. Florida Bay, the nursery ground for a number of valuable commercial species, is experiencing massive algae blooms and a general decline in productivity due to the disruption in freshwater flows. “In the past hundred years, people have been digging canals and building dams in the Everglades so they could take water out of it, develop agriculture and build homes,” says Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation. “We’ve built so many canals and drained so much water that the natural flow is interrupted.” Plans are in place by government agencies to restore water flows through the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay by removing barriers to water movement. One key project involves adding bridges to the Tamiami Trail roadway by directing traffic above, and not through, the fragile marsh. The future of the Everglades’ restoration rests on the rapid and integrated implementation of projects like these.

The Everglades play an important role in South Florida’s watershed. Commonly referred to as the “River of Grass,” the swamp land consists of a unique sheet flow of surface water over expansive saw grass plains. This term was popularized by an early defender of the Everglades, Marjorie Stoneham Douglass who published The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947. Her influential work explained the importance of the Everglades, sparking interest in its conservation. Settlers arriving in southern Florida in the early 1900s had a drastic impact on the ecosystem, many considered the Everglades to be an evil swamp and urged to drain much of the wetlands. They built houses and planted crops while channeling water to provide a constant supply and to protect their homes against constant flooding. Before the early settlers realized the importance of the Everglades, including the unique habitat of many micro-organisms, plants, and animals, not much thought was put into protecting the valuable wetlands until recently.

In 1972, Governor Askew implemented the Florida Land Conservation Act, which allowed the purchase of land by voter-approved bonds considered to be environmentally unique and irreplaceable. During the same year, President Richard Nixon declared the Big Cypress Swamp, originally the intended location for the Miami jetport in 1969, to be federally protected. Other acts, such as the Everglades Forever Act (EFA), a bill introduced by Governor Chiles in 1994, did not originally receive much public acceptance. The bill insured the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the SFWMD to be responsible for carrying out roles including the enforcement of water supply improvements, controlling exotic species, and collecting taxes with the aim to deplete the levels of phosphorus. Critics, including Marjorie Stoneham Douglass who declined having the act named after her, were originally unimpressed since this bill did not require sugarcane farmers, the largest polluters, to pay enough of the costs. The bill also increased the threshold of what was an acceptable amount of phosphorus in water to five times the current adequate levels. Despite the criticism the EFA is considered to be a major success to many while contributing to higher water quality levels and the advancement of Saltwater Treatment Areas.  These pushes in the protection of the Everglades was the foundation for multi-billion dollar plans to come.

everglades 3The Everglades receives the largest portion of support from a thirty year restoration plan estimating a total budget of $7.8 billion. In 2000, Congress and President Clinton approved a multi-billion dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in an effort to restore water flows and buoy wildlife populations in South Florida. The plan, approved under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000, has been described as the world’s largest ecosystem restoration effort including more than sixty major components to restore the ecosystem ensuring clean, reliable water supplies and providing flood protection to Florida’s residents. CERP is an update to the 1948 Central & Southern Florida Project (C&SF), South Florida’s existing water management system. A major focus of this re-plumbing involved reversing the damage done a half century ago when the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District built a 1,400 mile network of canals and water-control structures to divert millions of gallons of water each day from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  The project has since been updated to the current legislation due to unintended adverse effects on the South Florida ecosystem. The completion of the C-38 canal in 1971, which straightened the Kissimmee River, caused catastrophic impacts on the water quality and animal habitats in this region. This became C&SF’s first reverted project in the 1980s when the canal was backfilled in an effort to retain the original flow pattern of the river.

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The goal of CERP is to capture fresh water that now flows unused to the ocean and the gulf while redirecting it to areas that need it most. The majority of the water will be devoted to environmental restoration in efforts to revive a dying ecosystem while the remaining will benefit cities and farmers by enhancing water supplies for the South Florida ecosystem. Legal water allocation requirements are currently in place by Congress confirming the ecosystem remains CERP’s top priority while preventing it from being hijacked to primarily serve the needs of agricultural interests and developers. CERP implementation suffered delays during the start of the decade by a lack of funding and bureaucratic infighting that produced no meaningful restoration results until 2009 when the infusion of federal funding and the State of Florida’s decision to buy significant land in the Everglades currently under sugarcane cultivation.

It is estimated that no more than two percent of the original Everglades ecosystem is truly intact to this day; however, about thirty percent of this area remains in an altered state that could be restored with effective management techniques. Along with the assistance from various conservation partners such as the Everglades Coalition, the Florida & National Audubon Society, and the Nature Conservancy of Florida, the restoration of the Everglade’s ecosystem continues to flourish after the damaging effects sustained during the past century. The current water legislations will ensure the quality and quantity of water in areas surrounded by rapid population growth including Dade, Broward, and West Palm Beach counties. With the support of acts such as CERP, the preservation of crops and animal species unique to Florida will continue to be a top priority which ensures high quality water with low phosphate levels.