Why the glory of Florida's Everglades will never be restored
Experts hoped to restore the region to pre-drainage wilderness, but with climate change-related issues, experts say there is no going back
Progress and “civilisation” brought untold harm to Florida’s Everglades. People literally drained the swamp, straightened the river and “reclaimed” land for housing and farming. Is there any hope for it?
When the Everglades restoration plan was adopted in 2000, it aimed to turn back the clock to the pre-drainage wilderness. But in the face of rising seas, along with fluctuating temperatures and rainfall distribution, experts agree there is no going back.
“Everglades restoration has always been an ambitious and complex endeavour,” the National Academies of Sciences panel wrote. “Our current review emphasises how it is also dynamic and the importance of focusing restoration on the future Everglades, rather than on the past Everglades.”
Earlier this year, an interagency group that includes the US Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service issued its latest Everglades System Status Report – and it was not cheery.
The Everglades are struggling to survive in the face of sustained pressure from human activity and this is made worse by climate change. The region’s ecosystems are degraded, the group said, and they have yet to see any ecological benefits to the restoration efforts.
Perhaps the biggest step towards that end so far is the re-engineering of Tamiami Trail, the east-west highway that essentially has acted as a dike through the heart of the Everglades since the 1920s. Since 2013, workers have elevated 5.3 km of the roadway, allowing water to flow freely into Shark River Slough, historically the deepest and wettest part of the Everglades.
“We’re starting to see the vegetation respond, and we’re getting more of those marsh grasses, more of those open water sloughs,” says Stephen Davis, senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation. “I’m very confident that we can restore this ecosystem. And by restoration, I mean enhancing the functionality of what remains.”
“We’re on the threshold of seeing whether the previous 20 years of work will pay off,“ says William Nuttle, a consultant with the University of Maryland’s Centre for Environmental Science who began his career in the marshlands of South Florida.
But time is not on the Everglades’ side.
Over the past decade, scientists began noticing an alarming trend in the wetlands near the park’s southwest tip – “potholes” of open water filled with dead vegetation. Sea water, Nuttle says, was causing vast areas of once-healthy saw grass prairie “to unravel like a moth-eaten wool sweater”.
A lack of fresh water from the north and the intrusion of sea water have boosted salinity levels in the marshes, which appears to be hindering plant growth.
Scientists are counting on mangroves and other more salt-tolerant plants to migrate inland into the saw grass plains, establishing a new, natural defence against climate change. But that change may already be outpacing nature’s – and man’s – ability to counter it: When the restoration plan was adopted in 2000, its authors were anticipating seas to rise only 15cm by 2050. They’ve since already risen 12.5cm.
Still, there are some hopeful signs.
Some adaptation is taking place. Scientists poking through the bellies of wood storks, an “indicator species” for Everglades restoration, have found evidence that they are feasting on the non-native African jewelfish. And the endangered Everglades snail kite is showing a fondness for an exotic species of the mollusc, another latecomer to the region.
Perhaps the most encouraging development of all is the ongoing US$578 million project to restore part of the Kissimmee River Basin. Since the demolition of some of the dams, a portion of the river has found its old channel. The wetlands are returning, and so is the wildlife.
Thomas Van Lent, vice-president of science and education at the Everglades Foundation, recently took a boat trip on the restored river.
His colleague Stephen Davis believes the plan can provide flood protection – and water for drinking and recreation – while restoring and preserving the Everglades’ original functions.
“I think there are some that think restoration is like restoring an old automobile back to what it looked like and felt like historically,” he says. “That’s not the case with Everglades restoration.”
In 2015, the Corps submitted its most recent report to Congress, estimating the total cost of restoration at US$16 billion – about twice the original projection. Unsurprisingly, that figure draws detractors who question such a large outlay being spent with no guarantee of success.
One recent steamy morning, Michael Todd Tillman watched as three massive pumps, running around the clock since spring, spewed water into the L-29 Canal beside the Tamiami Trail.
“They’re about to flood me out,” says the airboat operator, whose family has a recreational camp inside the park.
Tillman says he understands what the engineers are trying to do, but wonders whether he and others could be losing a way of life based on someone’s best guess.
“They made huge mistakes before,” he says. “How do they know this is the right answer now?”
Whatever the final price tag, Nuttle says humans created this “hybrid ecosystem” and that it is up to humans to maintain it – for nature’s sake, and for our own.
“We started in South Florida by declaring war on the ecosystem,” he says. “It’s not restoration that we’re paying for; it’s restitution.”