by Kathy Panko
Environmental Issues Group – 02/15/2021

Fixing the EvergladesThe Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), approved by Congress in the year 2000, included 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 necessary structures. 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 and completed just one project. Replumbing the Everglades is now expected to continue most of this century and cost more than $16 billion.  CERP is the largest environmental restoration project ever – covering an area the size of New Jersey.

 

Though named the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the project covered only part of the Everglades, and wasn’t even close to “comprehensive.” Nor was it a “restoration” in the sense of returning the Glades to its original state.  Half the Everglades is long gone to development, flood protection and farming. “Restoring” what was left meant using engineering and structures to restore function. The project has experienced many delays due to changing circumstances. Scientists now understand more about the eco-system geology and hydrology, atmospheric trends, saltwater intrusion and the pace of sea-level rise. The condition of the Lake Okeechobee dike and high-rain events, with resulting algal blooms, have complicated efforts. We now know that the region is not able to support as much underground water storage as originally envisioned.

 

Major problem: water meant to hydrate Everglades National Park and Florida Bay is escaping underground to the park’s east. A possible solution (years away) includes constructing a giant underground wall to retain the water. Other issues: Invasive species and human population are growing. The sea is rising faster than anticipated. Original planning was during a cold/dry cycle. We’re now in a 30 to 40 year warm/wet phase that will leave as much as 50% more runoff a year.

 

Overall, project advocates say that water quality in the Everglades is improving, but maintaining the momentum assumes funding. Planners want $7.4 billion this decade. Since the year 2000, the state and federal governments have spent $21 billion on Everglades projects – about $1,000 for every Floridian.

A few of the many complications include:

  • Sea Level Rise: Created by gradual sea-level rise thousands of years ago, and gaining scientific predictive support over the recent two decades, the southern Everglades by century’s end could be largely underwater.
  • Invasive Species: Two decades ago, the Everglades was home to 68 endangered and threatened animal and plant species. Today, Burmese pythons roam all of Everglades National Park. Estimates of their population range as high as 300,000. The python increase coincides with a decrease in raccoons, bobcats and the disappearance of foxes and rabbits.
  • The Reservoir:  Work has begun on the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project – a 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area meant to clean water stored in the reservoir and allow it to be moved south to the Everglades. South Florida Water Management District recently approved $175.8 million to finish their part of the project. Groups including Friends of the Everglades and Sierra Club want a much larger, shallower reservoir or wetland. They say the planned reservoir looks to become a hotbed for algal blooms (a mini Lake Okeechobee) that may not reduce estuary damage and would pollute the Everglades. 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.
  • The Lake: The state is responsible for water quality while the Army Corps focuses on water control. Lake Okeechobee still has not recovered from damage by Hurricane Irma in 2017.  It is at its preferred level for health only 28% of the time. Phosphorus use upstream is a real problem. The Everglades needs water light on nutrients, such as phosphorus. To get there, the lake should receive no more than 140 metric tons of phosphorus a year (measured in parts per billion). It averages 531 tons, thanks to decades of phosphorus use upstream by agriculture and people.
  • Funding:  To date, the state and federal governments have spent a combined $6.2 billion on CERP.  On that plan and the larger Everglades system, they’ve spent a combined $21.6 billion, and planners want another $7.4 billion this decade.  It is a lot of money, but funding for Everglades conservation is a matter of sustaining life for future decades.

 

A full report is available on the Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District website at: www.saj.usace.army.mil/CERP-Report-to-Congress

Sources: Florida Trend:  February 2021

                  Palm Beach Post: February 12, 2021