Wetlands will be discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019. Learn more about how to join here.
For Jerry Lorenz, if there’s one lesson to be learned from the ongoing restoration of the Everglades, it’s that wetlands are easily destroyed and immensely painstaking to repair.
“It’s much easier to break them than to fix them,” says Lorenz, director of research at Audubon Florida’s Everglades Science Center. “Once you’ve done damage to your wetlands, you’re going to start appreciating that they are the ecosystem’s kidneys. They protect you from storm surges, and without them, you’re not going to have drinking water. So you’ve got to protect your watershed entirely.”
In the past century, 50 years of dredging and diking has transformed most of the once vast network of sub-tropical freshwater ecosystems in the U.S. state of Florida into arable land and urban areas, which 8.7 million people now call home.
Historically, a shallow sheet of water covering almost 28,000 square kilometers flowed unimpeded through central Florida’s Kissimmee River Valley to the estuaries of Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay off the state’s southernmost coasts, creating on its way a mosaic of ponds, sloughs and sawgrass marshes and, on natural rises, tropical hardwood hammocks and forested uplands. This highly diverse and unique landscape supported an array of extraordinary wildlife, including over 350 bird species alone.
In her 1947 non-fiction book The Everglades: River of Grass, published the inaugural year of Everglades National Park, journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas described the lands in dream-like tones: “The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.”
But even after Douglas penned her ode to raise awareness of this invaluable stretch of ecosystems, their rivers, lakes and marshes continued to be meddled with, having measurable negative impacts on vertebrate fauna – from manatees and crocodiles to roseate spoonbills and bald eagles – and their habitat. Invasive species like melaleuca have displaced native vegetation in wetland and upland environments, and seawater infiltration is eating away at the sawgrass prairies, leaving behind dead vegetation and standing water – like holes in a moth-eaten sweater.
“Just because there’s land beneath that water doesn’t mean that you should take the water off it,” says Lorenz.
For the last 20 years, however, engineers have been steadily working at turning back the clock. Funded and authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, the USD 10 billion program aims to restore more than 1.2 million hectares of the historic ecosystem back to health and then some, with flood protection and public infrastructure such as waste water treatment and fresh drinking water.
Adam Gelber, director of the Office of Everglades Restoration Initiatives, describes the program as “super complex.” It has taken “a lot of planning to get it as right as possible,” he adds.
Getting it as right as possible means building or altering infrastructure to restore the quantity, quality, timing and distribution of water flows from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay.
According to Gelber, four out of the five so-called foundation projects have been completed. One, the Kissimmee River Restoration project, “is in its final stages,” he says. In the 1960s, the Kissimmee was channeled away from its natural floodplain. Compartmentalized with levees and water-control structures, the river was transformed into a series of five relatively stagnant pools, and wetland-dependent wildlife declined drastically. The project is “restoring the meandering nature of the river to provide environmental benefits that were removed as a result of straightening.”
Another key project still in construction is called C-44 – the ‘C’ designating a canal – an above-ground reservoir spanning 1,376 hectares located halfway between Lake Okeechobee and the ocean, which captures and treats stormwater, removing pollution and chemical nutrients from agricultural run-off before releasing it into C-44, and onward into the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie Estuary.
The C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project, meanwhile, is creating a 10-kilometer-long hydraulic ridge adjacent to Everglades National Park. Its 238-hectare above-ground detention area and two pumping stations will keep more natural rainfall and water movement within Taylor Slough, which flows in and over the Everglades, down to the bays.
One of the most important projects, however, is the lifting of the 443-kilometer-long Tamiami Trail, a highway that crosses the Everglades from Miami to Tampa and acts as a giant plug. Funded by a partnership between state and federal governments, the roadway has been successfully lifted and reconnected with 9 kilometers of bridges.
“The raising of the Tamiami Trail is the lynchpin,” says Lorenz. “There’s no two ways about that. But we now have to put in some infrastructure that will allow us to raise the canal to the north of it. That will increase the flow under the bridges. And at that point, yes, we get a hydrological reconnection between Shark River Slough, the main flow through the Everglades and Taylor Slough, the main flow way to Florida Bay.”
Indeed, the raising of the canal, Gelber says, “will allow us, in the next five or six years if we stay on track, to get back approximately 70 percent of the historic flows to Everglades National Park.”
In terms of wildlife coming back, “we’re not there yet,” says Lorenz. “All in all, we are seeing a net increase in freshwater flow and a response in the submerged plants. But we are not seeing it up the food chain at this point. It’s too subtle for it to translate into the higher organisms.”
While scientists have seen a slight increase in the freshwater fish numbers, he said, the coastal marshes are still salty or brackish. Sea level rise is also complicating matters.
“Even though we can push the saltwater back out,” says Lorenz, “it’s actually getting a little too deep for the wading birds. We need drier conditions during the dry season to concentrate the prey fish.” That, he adds, would help bird species such as pelicans, ospreys and bald eagles, because they don’t require shallow water. “But for the wading birds that forage in that habitat, it’s simply becoming too deep. They have to go further inland,” he says.
While Lorenz is confident that the Everglades’ wildlife will come back to their former haunts if all of the restoration projects are managed successfully, there are a lot of players in the Everglades game, and their interests aren’t always in sync.
According to Gelber, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce is made up of 14 members, including representatives of two Native American tribes and city governments, as well as diverse state and federal authorities. “Trying to find that balance between economic development and providing for a better life for people and the environment – how to thread that needle is quite challenging,” he says.
Yet the importance of finishing the job is incontestable. The resources of the Everglades are not only environmentally valuable but also economically vital, says Lorenz. The Florida Reef is the world’s third-largest reef and the only living coral barrier in the continental United States; together with the Florida Bay and Florida Keys, the region attracts thousands of tourists every year.
“We’ve already seen that when Florida Bay goes through a prolonged period of inconsistent health, fish kills and algae blooms, it greatly affects our economy, not only from the tourism side but also from the property value side,” says Lorenz.
Indeed, says Gelber, “the sooner we get to full restoration, the sooner the society will reap all of the benefits.”