She is pure light descending from the sky; a single snowy egret swoops
softly down, taking pause in a shallow pool, her body half hidden by
the khaki grass rising from the water. Her eyes scan the flat horizon
for just a moment before she returns to the air.
Like the egret, I am wading through the Everglades, viewing the legacy of more than 150 years of drainage and development. As a geologist, I wonder what this wetland looked like when it was truly wet. Wading through sporadic stands of knee-high grass rising from ankle-deep water, I watch the snowy egret until she disappears into the clouds flowing unimpeded over this land, as the water once did.
Norman Maclean, in the final pages of his novel A River Runs Through It, wrote, “I am haunted by waters.” Throughout the relationship between Europeans and the Everglades, waters have certainly haunted. They haunted the first explorers, who got lost in the unending maze. They haunted the first settlers, who could not find dry land. They haunted farmers, who feared their floods. They haunted engineers, sent by the government to conquer the waters. Now they haunt me. The water that remains lingers like some ghost of Everglades past.
Early in Florida’s development, the question was how to get rid of the water. Today, we wonder how to get the water back. In December 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)—at the time touted as the largest step towards conservation in US history—and since then, the subject of intense debate. The Plan’s goal, to restore the Everglades ecosystem to some sort of equilibrium, cuts to the heart of the 100-year-old water war between development and the environment here in Florida.
Dr. Walter Rosenbaum, a former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), taught one of the first environmental politics courses in the country. He also works as a consultant for the South Florida Environmental Restoration Project.
Sitting in his newly refurbished office in the University of Florida’s political science department, Rosenbaum talks about what he sees as the project’s biggest challenge: “its ability to achieve the environmental goals of the restoration,” a term he sees as a misnomer for the reconstruction of a man-made ecosystem that realistically will never be able support itself. He gives the project a 50/50 chance of success.
“It depends on whether or not we can get the water right. Other factors, like wildlife, will follow.” Rosenbaum says “Get the water right” should be the slogan of the restoration project. His problems with the implementation procedures exist because some want, as he put it, “to simply get the water.”
“Water,” Rosenbaum says, “is the single most important issue in this state.” This dependence is nothing new. It dates to the mid-19th century, when hurricanes, floods, fires, and drought created the need for water controls in a region concerned more with development and economic growth than protecting the environment.
Following World War II, the US economy and population exploded, with Florida feeling the full effects of the growth. Tourism grew almost exponentially. In 1948, the Army Corps of Engineers began building the Central and South Florida Project (C&SF), intended as “a practical and permanent solution of the problems of flood protection and water control in central and southern Florida” (C&SF, 1948). Environmental impact, protection, or conservation won little attention in this initial phase of large-scale human interference.
The C&SF took nearly 20 years to complete. Department of the Interior records show that in that time, government agencies helped build more than 1,000 miles of levees and canals, 150 water control structures, and 16 major pump stations. Their efforts continued for decades, changing the Everglades from largely uncontrolled, uninhabitable wetlands to the home of more than six million people by the mid-1990s. The area now encompasses seven of the nation’s 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas: the Everglades are now roughly half their original size.
C&SF may have seemed a practical solution to growth, but it turns out it was anything but permanent. As diversion and drainage continued, the plan caused more problems than it solved. As development and water use ran rampant, the inability of the C&SF to sustain the environmental quality of the wetlands became increasingly evident as more and more water was drained from the system.
Ecosystem in crisis
The Everglades’ once natural ecosystem is now extensively manipulated. Agriculture and an expanding population siphon clean water from the system, returning it polluted. According to USGS point-source data reports, the agricultural industry, led by sugar, is the primary source of detrimental chemicals such as phosphates—now widespread throughout the Everglades and adjacent reservoirs—which pollute the water that drains back into the Everglades. The concentration of pollutants increases daily with the decline of actual water volumes in the system, currently one-half the original volume.
The federal government took legal action against the sugar industries in the 1990s for polluting the Everglades National Park, bringing the C&SF under review in the process. The feds realized the ecosystem was in crisis. Years of litigation and apparent compromise brought together the federal and state governments, as well as industry heads and environmentalists, to create what we now know as CERP, which details 60 specific elements and projects to restore the Everglades.
CERP is scheduled to take more than 30 years to complete. Originally estimated at $7.8 billion, the cost to re-engineer the ecosystem grows daily, and is now estimated at more than $11 billion.
One of the earliest goals of CERP, and one that dramatically exhibits the complications of the project, is to increase the overall sheet flow of the watershed into Florida Bay. The idea is that the Army Corps of Engineers will recreate the original flow patterns of the wetlands system through management of canals, levees, and reservoirs. This complex coordination seems less and less plausible as the project moves forward. Research into the process suggests the likelihood of lengthy delays lasting decades, according to scientists listed in Florida Audubon’s 2001 Everglades Report.
Of the many smaller projects within the larger restoration, the acquisition of land for the eventual increase of natural estuaries provides a glimmer of positivity. But even the seemingly simple process of buying back property to then turn back to wetland has seen delays.
CERP also aims to increase water levels by trapping water before it is lost to the ocean. But before it can return to the system, the water must be extensively filtered. The water will need to be contained somehow, which most likely means constructing more reservoirs. Building new reservoirs in the state of Florida, already one of the nation’s leaders in per capita water consumption, has some saying that CERP furthers the very development that originally harmed the wetlands.
There is obviously political support for getting water to south Florida’s burgeoning populations. Assuring the continued supply of water is a priority at the ballot box and thus in the state legislature. The Everglades’ future rests in the hands of those forces that were responsible for the initial mismanagement, the same hands still reaching for the water.
The X factor
Complicating all this is the potential effect of climate change. If certain warming predictions come to pass, the restoration becomes moot, as the Everglades subside under a rising ocean. Water levels recorded in many locations all over the world show sea level rising, while measurements of polar ice caps suggest melting trends. In the time it takes to complete the restoration, Florida’s coastal areas and low-elevation inlands could be inundated with salt water. The lack of attention given climate change by restoration leaders could prove an extreme miscalculation.
Almost three years after the passage of CERP, the Everglades continue to shrink and fresh water levels continue to drop. With every passing day, CERP seems to garner more negative attention. Unless real priority is given to protecting our natural resources, the egret, along with the water, will soon leave this place forever.
—Adam Spangler is a graduate of EIJ’s intern program.
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