Restoring the Florida Everglades: Where things stand
by Mike Vogel
Updated 2 yearss ago
It’s been 20 years since Congress approved the plan to “restore” the Everglades. The plan — behind schedule and over budget — is gathering momentum just as new factors threaten to overwhelm it. What sort of engineered ecosystem will we end up with?
The elements failed to cooperate. An October deluge dumped rain down the white canopy sheltering a score of dignitaries who had assembled a dozen miles out in the Everglades to celebrate two obscure milestones in the multi-billion, multi-decade plan to rehabilitate the Everglades.
As the rain poured down, politicians and bureaucrats extolled the state’s completion of the S-333N, a giant gate-like structure for doubling water flow to Everglades National Park. And they praised a $40.5-million federal contract to fill in an agricultural ditch, build some culverts and put a gap in a levee. It’s the first contract for a suite of major projects that move water south — the “heart of Everglades restoration,” says Col. Andrew Kelly, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the Everglades work.
“Momentum characterizes Everglades restoration today,” said Kelly. Added Gov. Ron DeSantis, “Millions of Floridians are going to see a real difference in water quality — hopefully in just a few short years.” State environmental protection secretary Noah Valenstein noted, “a sense of optimism from everyone involved that things are really moving forward quickly now.”
“Quickly” has been 20 years in the making. Approved by Congress in 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) encompassed 68 components to be completed in 20 to 30 years at a cost of $7.8 billion. The plan includes constructing reservoirs, removing levees, filling canals and building structures like the S-333N. The aim was to restore something like the natural flow of water in what’s left of the Everglades while assuring water supply and flood protection for about a third of Floridians.
Two decades later, the state and federal governments have spent $6.2 billion. They’ve drafted studies and designs, bought land, moved earth, built structures — and completed just one project. “The long and the short of it is, it took longer to get where we are than we all thought it would,” says Shannon Estenoz, COO with advocacy and research organization Everglades Foundation.
Though named the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan, the project covered only part of the Everglades. “It wasn’t even close to comprehensive,” says Gene Duncan, water resources director for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.
Nor was it a “restoration” in the sense of returning the Glades to its original state: Half the Everglades is long gone — to development, people, flood protection and farming — and won’t be coming back. ‘Restoring’ what was left meant using engineering and structures to restore function — like hip replacement surgery.
However limited, CERP is the largest environmental restoration ever — pharaonic, one author described it — covering an area the size of New Jersey. Just over half the cost, estimated Conservation International, would be enough to buy and protect the world’s rainforests.
Supporters say delays, both unexpected and unintended, were understandable with such an unprecedented effort. And along the way a host of new wrinkles has emerged. Case in point: Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos noted that water meant to hydrate Everglades National Park and Florida Bay was escaping underground to the park’s east. “We’re investing millions of dollars of the American people to restore the Everglades,” he said. “Right now, we’re losing as much water as we’re putting into the park because we don’t take care of that situation on the eastern side of our boundary.” Possible solutions — years away — include constructing a giant underground wall to retain the water for the park and bay.
Other trends cloud prospects for success. Invasive species and human population are growing. The sea is rising faster than planners anticipated. Also, in designing the plan’s devices and works, scientists and engineers pegged rainfall and water flows to the climate from 1965 through the 1990s. Scientists now realize that was but a moment in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, an atmospheric phenomenon that was in its cold — dry — cycle when planners made their assumptions. We’re now in a 30- to 40-year warm — wet — phase that will leave the Corps and state handling as much as 50% more runoff a year.
Environmental organizations, researchers and government agencies remain broadly supportive of the program, though individuals and groups dicker over particular components. “They’re taking out plumbing and replacing it with plumbing,” says Florida Gulf Coast University water authority William Mitsch, “I guess I’m still not convinced that the 800-pound gorilla of getting lots of clean water down to the Everglades is going to happen.”
Generally, environmental groups want more — more money, more water storage, more water treatment — faster.
Meanwhile, the Corps’ recent Everglades health report card grades the ecosystem a 45 (“fair”) on a zero to 100 scale. “The one-line conclusion from that report is the Everglades ecosystem is struggling even after 20 years,” says Bill Nuttle, an environmental consultant with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He adds, “if we don’t keep the environment running, South Florida is toast.”
Keeping it running is endlessly vexing. Back in the spring, managers fretted about a scarcity of water after the driest March on record. Then came a wet season with too many days like that of the ceremony. Tropical Storm Eta alone brought a foot of rain. In November, water district chief engineer John Mitnick was saying, “We’ve got more water than places to put it.”
Rising water in the Everglades hit record highs, evoking memories of floods 20 and 30 years ago that drowned animals and necessitated mercy killings of starving wildlife. The recently celebrated S-333N — though meant for use in “high water emergency situations” to prevent wildlife drownings — was closed, forcing water to build up behind it to the north. Opening it would flood 18 homes in a west Miami-Dade community known as the 8.5-square mile area, or Las Palmas, that has complicated Everglades decision-making for decades.
In a typical Everglades twist, the rising water that was life-threatening for land animals was perhaps good news for some wading birds, which historically do well at nesting after washout years. And all the freshwater was great for Florida Bay — hyper-salinity is tagged as a problem there — but bad for the St. Lucie Estuary, which found itself with too much freshwater.
Overall, project advocates say, water quality in the Everglades is improving. The Everglades’ plant ecosystem goes awry if the water contains even a fraction of the phosphorus found in orange juice or milk. In the central Everglades, engineered marshes and ag industry efforts have dramatically lowered phosphorus levels from those of the 1990s. Says Estenoz of overall restoration, “the longer I work on this, the more optimistic I get.”
Other positives: Foundational projects that predate the plan are done or nearly so. The attendees at the S-333N and groundbreaking affair, for example, traveled there over three miles of the Tamiami Trail that’s been bridged so that water can flow freely underneath rather than be dammed up by the road. Some reservoirs are underway. Plus, the government construction schedule shows important work to be finished in the next 13 years. “There is a lot of momentum on some of the major projects,” says the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Marisa Carrozzo, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition.
Maintaining the momentum assumes funding. Everglades spending has hit records under DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. Still, federal spending needs to at least double, Estenoz says. Planners want $7.4 billion this decade. Since 2000, the state and federal governments have spent $21 billion on Everglades projects in the 2000 plan and others — about $1,000 for every Floridian. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at the ceremony, urged that “we finish this thing in less than a thousand years because for some of our colleagues across the country — as I always remind my Everglades-focused friends — there are other water projects, big major water projects, lined up behind us, and so the quicker we can get this thing done, the more we’re going to have a chance for our colleagues not running out of patience.”
After the last speaker, the event planners broke the dignitaries into groups. Masked for COVID, they grasped shovels and group by group dashed from under the canopy for a photo of them tossing earth for the first project in the suite of Army Corps central Everglades works. Water drops on the camera lens blurred the pictures.
Why So Slow?
- The Congressional Research Service has noted some progress but attributed the slow pace of Everglades rehabilitation to ...
- The federal government has lagged the state in spending.
Project authorization delays
- The government’s pace of design and approval has been glacial. The Army Corps, the federal half of the state-federal partnership that’s conducting the project, now tries to complete feasibility studies faster: The 3x3x3 rule — for under $3 million, in under three years and with involvement from all three Corps levels, district, division and headquarters.
The report saw challenges ahead ...
- Continued state and federal funding support
- Water quality and ongoing degradation of the natural ecosystem and species because of invasive species could challenge the outcome of particular project parts.
- Scientists now understand more about the eco-system geology and hydrology, atmospheric trends, saltwater intrusion and the pace of sea-level rise.
- The dangerous condition of the Lake Okeechobee dike and high-rain events, with resulting algal blooms, have complicated efforts.
- It turns out that the region wasn’t able to support as much underground water storage as the original plan envisioned.
In a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Everglades planning session in October, a representative of a federal agency posed a question she said was asked of her from the public: “If sea-level rise is inevitable, why are we proceeding with this project?”
Lately, the expression “the elephant in the room” has gotten a workout over what sea-level rise means for the decades and billions of dollars ahead in Everglades replumbing.
Created by gradual sea-level rise thousands of years ago, the southern Everglades by century’s end could be largely under water or, at best, considerably altered — depending on the projection. Already, the rising sea is leading to erosion. Mangroves are moving inland, plant and animal species are relocating and part of the saline Everglades has been inundated.
In its first report to Congress in 2006 on Everglades progress, a National Academy of Sciences panel barely mentioned rising seas and climate change. By 2018, that panel was telling Congress the two subjects weren’t being adequately addressed and it was time to re-assess what can be accomplished. Past won’t be prologue for the Everglades. “The Everglades of 2050 and beyond will differ from what was originally envisioned when the (comprehensive Everglades restoration plan) was developed,” the panel wrote.
Panel chair William Boggess, a professor from Oregon State, used an analogy from hockey. “Maybe we should be skating to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is right now,” he said. The panel reported that projects may improve resiliency but that needs to be quantified.
Supporters of the program say the Corps and South Florida Water Management District — the federal-state partners on the plan — have been adjusting for sea-level rise. They also say the replumbing will keep the seawater at bay and preserve South Florida’s drinking water supply longer.
Much cited two decades ago as justification for Congress’ unprecedented spending to replumb South Florida: The Everglades was home to 68 endangered and threatened animal and plant species.
Little mentioned at the time: Invasive species. Search newspaper archives from before 2000 for the Burmese python and you find cheery stories about unusual pets. A National Park Service scientist even told reporters that Everglades National Park “appeared to dodge that (invasive species) bullet,” though he went on to say, “Who knows when the bullet will come?”
It came. Today, the Everglades suffers from “a barrage of pressures” bought on by non-natives such as melaleuca trees, lionfish and the python, the park’s website says.
Burmese pythons now roam South Florida and all of Everglades National Park. Estimates of the python population range as high as 300,000. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Executive Director Eric Sutton says hunters have caught 6,278 pythons since a control program began.
Overall, the Everglades is home to 267 animal and plant species that don’t belong there naturally. Some 16% of the flora is non-native. A park road survey found the python increase coincided with a decrease in sightings from 2003 to 2011 of 99.3% for raccoons, 87.5% for bobcats and the disappearance of foxes and rabbits.
More worrisome: If common mammals disappear, what does it mean for rare animals that scientists have trouble spotting?
The proliferation of invasive species also raises the question of whether the multi-billions spent on Everglades rehabilitation just enhance the environment for non-native plants and animals.
The roseate spoonbill, found along the Gulf from Florida to Texas, is such an iconic bird that it was made an “indicator species” for Everglades restructuring — get conditions right for the spoonbill, and you’ve got the system right.
In the late 1980s, the only place roseate spoonbills nested in Florida was Florida Bay and the Upper Keys. Then, for a time, “it looked like some things were improving,” says Jerry Lorenz, state research director at Audubon’s Everglades Science Center in Tavernier in the Keys.
At least until the birds started voting with their wings on rising seas. Spoonbills feed on fish in shallow water — five inches deep. From 1989 to 2010, feeding areas above Florida Bay saw 100 to 150 days annually when the water was shallow enough. By 2019-20, the water was sufficiently shallow only 14 days. Spoonbills moved their nesting sites up the peninsula and beyond to Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas, abandoning Florida Bay because of the high water. “Florida Bay is probably not their best habitat anymore,” Lorenz says. “The water is too deep. Their bill is only so long.”
The development prompts reflection on the bird as indicator species. “We’re going to have mixed messages when it comes to Everglades restoration because of climate change and sea-level rise,” Lorenz says. “The thinking when we started of what it was and what we expected it to be, we’ve got to reassess these things.”
Restoration must go on, he adds, so that the Everglades changes gradually, giving plants and animals time to adjust, and to provide a buffer from storms and freshwater for people.
The official word on the spoonbill from the Army Corps’ Everglades restoration progress report: A red light. A particular replumbing project “may not be delivering the benefits” designed.
Like the other players in the Everglades replumbing, the Miccosukee Tribe applauds the goal. “We are encouraged the Everglades restoration is moving forward,” says tribe water resources director Gene Duncan.
That said, he adds, “We think it could be doing better.”
The tribe’s critique: Some parts of the Everglades — specifically, Everglades National Park — are treated as more equal than others, specifically, the tribe’s lands. Efforts to reduce phosphorus, a critical part of maintaining the Glades ecosystem, have lowered that nutrient’s level to acceptable averages across much of the system, but levels remain too high — on average double the acceptable — where water flows onto tribal lands.
The tribe’s view is that its lands are used as vast places to dilute polluting nutrients from the north. Further, the proposed big reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee will cover Indian grave sites under 23 feet of water, a desecration.
That same reservoir will increase water discharges onto tribe lands by 43% and, given the level of nutrients, increase the nutrient load by 36%. “The future doesn’t look bright,” Duncan says.
Meanwhile, the “premature” bridging of portions of the Tamiami Trail — so that water can flow south — before other parts of the massive replumbing were built threatens tribal residences and exacerbates the water-quality issue. “We just can’t protect Everglades National Park to the detriment of 423 square miles of tribe land to the north,” he says.
And meanwhile, the “comprehensive” Everglades plan didn’t cover the western Everglades. “We are years and years away.”
Lastly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “single-species management” focuses on protecting water depths for a subgroup of endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows to the exclusion of the larger environment — again, tribal lands suffer — and 68 endangered and threatened species on them. “We’re going to lose the Everglades like that,” he says.
Poor Performance, Busted Budgets
To follow the meandering course of 20 years of Everglades replumbing, look at a key construction project for the first decade of the program — a 62-square mile reservoir so large it would be seen from space.
The reservoir to be built in the farmland south of Lake Okeechobee by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be a shallow basin, or basins, on 40,000 to 50,000 acres and hold 117 billion gallons of water.
Then came years of wrestling over design and site and how much engineered marsh to build nearby to cleanse the reservoir water. The state spent $250 million on a scaled-down project that began in 2006, then put it on hold in 2008 after former Gov. Charlie Crist proposed to buy out major landowner U.S. Sugar — a distraction, environmentalists now say — and a lawsuit by environmentalists. At one point, the state was paying contractors millions of dollars to sit idle.
Meanwhile, with nowhere else to go, freshwater that accumulated in Lake Okeechobee was flushed down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, causing environmental and economic harm and a public outcry. Then state Senate President Joe Negron, who represented the area, in 2017 proposed buying 60,000 acres of farmland south of the lake for water storage. Growers and local leaders balked at so much land going out of production. The state Legislature settled on a 78-billion gallon, 10,100-acre, 23-foot deep version of what was supposed to be a 62-squaremile reservoir.
Earth moving was slow to come. On taking office in 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the state to speed up work on water storage projects. A new reservoir in Martin County scheduled to finish this year — part of $3.8 billion in Indian River Lagoon-related spending — will capture mostly local runoff. A $1.03-billion reservoir near LaBelle along the Caloosahatchee is scheduled for completion in 2023.
As for the big reservoir, groups including the Friends of the Everglades, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity want a much larger, shallower reservoir or wetland than what’s proposed. They say the planned reservoir looks to become a nutrient-laden hotbed for harmful algal blooms — a mini- Lake Okeechobee — that may not mitigate estuary damage and would pollute the Everglades itself with nutrients.
The current plan is a political fix, not a scientific one, says Florida Gulf Coast University professor William Mitsch, whose scholarship informs the Friends’ position. “Usually you try to copy what Mother Nature has done. What I don’t like about the reservoir is there is nothing like it in the Everglades,” Mitsch says. “It doesn’t make sense. Thirty years from now, people will say, ‘What were they thinking?’ Even from a satellite, it’s going to look stupid.”
If Congress delivers its share of the $3.8-billion reservoir and associated projects, the Corps plans to start building in 2022 and finish in 2027 — in the plan’s third decade.
On a windy November day on the north shore of Lake Okeechobee, Audubon Florida’s science coordinator for Everglades restoration Paul Gray interrupts himself to point out an endangered snail kite in its signature slow glide. “Good news,” he says.
It’s about the only good news he has. Caught among conflicting demands for water supply and storage, flood control and habitat, the lake is at its preferred level for health only 28% of the time. At the moment, it’s more than 16 feet deep, about a foot above the maximum spot for a healthy lake. Flushing freshwater to the estuaries causes environmental and economic harm there. The lake itself hasn’t recovered from damage by Hurricane Irma in 2017. “We’re back in hell where we were 20 years ago,” he says.
Various federal plans for the watershed have gone nowhere. A University of Florida Water Institute study in 2015 urged a return to the drawing board and coming back with another 900,000 to 1.3 million acre-feet of storage — 293 billion to 424 billion gallons — north of the lake to complement reservoirs east, west and planned for the south.
There’s another problem. The Everglades depends on water light on nutrients such as phosphorus — no more than 10 parts per billion. (A glass of milk has 1 million parts per billion.) To get phosphorus low in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee ideally needs to be under 40 parts per billion. To get there, in turn, the lake should receive no more than 140 metric tons a year of phosphorus. It averages 531 tons thanks to decades of phosphorus use upstream by agriculture and people. It gets 35 tons a year just from rain. Researchers say that if by magic no more phosphorus went into the watershed, the amount already in the soil will keep the lake getting more than 500 tons a year for 50 years. “We’re going to have problems for decades,” Gray says.
The federal government — already spending nearly $1.8 billion to make the lake’s dike safer — will be of limited help. Generally, the state is responsible for water quality while the Army Corps focuses on water control. The state last year, in a watershed planning document, said it was giving up as impractical reducing nutrients to a targeted goal within 20 years.
Gray likens spending on water to spending on roads — a constant task to meet the needs of people.
Congress authorized the Kissimmee River restoration in 1976; construction will be completed this year. “And that’s a simple project compared to what (comprehensive Everglades restoration plan) is,” Gray says. One thing that unites South Florida environmentalists and agriculture is making sure the water wanted for the Kissimmee, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades farmland and environment doesn’t get sucked away by faucets and lawn sprinklers in new subdivisions in metro Orlando.
One goal of the Everglades project is to provide water for residents, the environment and food supply — farmers say 180 million Americans consume Everglades-grown produce. As part of guaranteeing that water supply, planners back in 2000 called for drilling 330 aquifer storage and recovery wells, 200 of them around Lake Okeechobee. The concept: Pump water underground when it’s abundant and retrieve it when scarce. The wells take less real estate, are cheaper than storage alternatives and don’t lose water to evaporation. Such wells have been in use in Florida for decades — but never at this scale. Some feared adverse effects and water contamination.
After 20 years, two pilot wells, a regional study, three National Research Council reviews and $100 million in the last two years, scientists at the South Florida Water Management District have found no “fatal flaws” in using wells but say the region can support no more than 140 wells, 80 of them around Lake Okeechobee. Farmers support going forward. Some interests say Everglades restoration won’t work without the wells. Others say they don’t help and oppose them as risky. Staffers plan more research and talk about proceeding incrementally.
“We put a man on the moon with a lot less effort than this,” said Michael Collins, a former district board member and fishing guide, at a district meeting in December.
Interests in the Everglades project are sensitive to Everglades fatigue in Congress. Everglades spending pours into two giant pots. One holds all the projects that fall under the “Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan” (CERP) that Congress adopted in 2000. The other covers projects that aren’t part of that program. Generally, the state and federal governments spend more on Everglades projects that aren’t part of CERP.
The state and federal government have spent a combined $6.2 billion — of a project originally pegged at $7.8 billion — on CERP. On that plan and the larger Everglades system they’ve spent a combined $21.6 billion — about $1,000 for every Floridian, or the equivalent of two years of the state transportation department budget. And planners want another $7.4 billion this decade.
After 20 Years and Billions of Dollars …
Finished CERP Projects
- The Melaleuca Eradication and Other Exotic Pests Research Annex in Davie in suburban Broward, finished in 2013, the first completed CERP project. The facility raises insects as a biocontrol for invasive species. Authorities have released millions of moths, mites, beetles and other insects to combat invasive plants.
- Two pilot wells to test storing water underground
Finishing Before 2024
- The $800-million Picayune Strand restoration, which removed roads and built pumps and other works on 16,000 acres. Much of the ecological payoff reportedly won’t come until the final components are finished in 2023 and 2024.
- The 3,400-acre C-44 reservoir in Martin County, which will capture mostly local runoff, finishes this year. It and associated engineered marshes will hold 19.7 billion gallons. Price: $3.8 billion for the C-44 reservoir, the marshes and other Indian River Lagoon-area reservoirs scheduled later this decade.
- The 55 billion-gallon C-43 reservoir near LaBelle in Hendry County will capture local runoff and water flushed from Lake Okeechobee. The billion-dollar project finishes in 2023.
On the Horizon
- In October, the first contract was awarded for the Central Everglades Planning Project — the “big kahuna,” as one environmental group says — a conglomeration of several CERP projects to store, treat and move water south. It, unlike earlier projects around the periphery of the Everglades, focuses on the core. Construction on the centerpiece — a 10,100- acre, 23-foot deep reservoir — will begin in 2022, with completion in 2027, provided Congress funds the federal share of the $3.8-billion cost of it and allied projects.
- Loxahatchee River restoration
- Lake Okeechobee watershed restoration
- Western Everglades restoration
Read more in Florida Trend's February issue.
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