South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Twenty years after creation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, evidence is building that the ambitious effort will succeed. Consider two recent developments.
This week, Gov. Ron DeSantis reaffirmed his support for the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will prevent damaging discharges to coastal estuaries and store water that the Everglades needs. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, last month called the project “a mistake.” DeSantis called it “a top environmental priority.”
With his comment, DeSantis perhaps headed off any attempt by Simpson to cancel the project. Since the South Florida Water Management District already has allocated money for the state portion – an adjacent treatment area – it’s unclear what Simpson might have done. Still, we welcome the governor’s commitment.
Other good news this week came from Washington. A spending bill that President Trump signed contains $250 million for Everglades restoration, an increase of $50 million from last year.
In addition, the new Water Resources Development Act authorizes key projects in the Everglades restoration plan that will ensure continued progress on the southern reservoir.
Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon of Florida, says the spate of good news continues the momentum of the last few years.
“We have made tremendous progress and are now starting to see tangible benefits,” Wraithmell told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. “We can keep the momentum by continuing to demonstrate results.”
Though Everglades National Park is in South Florida, the Everglades system actually begins south of Orlando in the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, which flows into Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the system.
Only about half of the original Everglades south of the lake remains, but the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan seeks to recreate, as much as possible, the flow of water from the lake through the “River of Grass” and on to Florida Bay, the southern end of the system.
The natural flow has been upended by decades of water policy that prioritized development, flood control and agriculture, not water quality and the environment.
North of the lake, for example, at the state’s request, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the Kissimmee River in the 1960s, creating an ecological disaster. Rather than a 3-mile wide watershed that could filter out nutrients and pollutants from farms, lawns and septic tanks, the river became a straightaway of garbage flowing straight into the lake. However, a series of projects soon will return most of the Kissimmee to its meandering path.
Similarly, south of the lake a network of canals diverted water to create the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area and to drain land for modern South Florida.
But the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, authorized by Congress in 2000, began a new approach, based on the economic importance of the Everglades. That importance becomes even clearer as sea levels rise because of climate change.
As seas get higher, public drinking wells are at risk from saltwater intrusion. Keeping the Everglades’ fresh-water level high helps prevent salt water from reaching the wells and making them unusable.
“Everglades restoration is the face of climate change response,” Wraithmell said. “The regional economy depends on the environment. That includes property values and real estate transactions.”
The economic significance doesn’t stop there. Maintaining the proper amount and levels of water in Florida Bay — between the southern tip of Florida and the Florida Keys — nourishes one of the world’s best places for sportfishing, which supports another set of South Florida industries.
But for many years, the Tamiami Trail – U.S. 41 – across Miami-Dade County blocked the flow of water to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
The restoration plan includes raising more miles of roadway to allow more water to reach the bay. DeSantis has said this bridge project, which could be complete in 2024, will mean up to 80 billion more gallons of water each year for Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
“We didn’t get ourselves into this situation overnight,” Wraithmell said, “and we’re not going to get ourselves out of it overnight.” What’s happening now has taken “decades of hard work.”
Improvements are happening throughout the system. A western reservoir to store water and reduce damaging discharges from the lake to the Caloosahatchee River should be finished near Fort Myers in two years. A similar project will protect the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast.
Resistance won’t end. The state’s sugar growers opposed the southern reservoir, which the Legislature approved in 2017, and forced it to be far smaller than envisioned. And after lobbying from the agriculture industry, the Legislature has twice delayed imposition of tough, final standards to clean farm runoff before it enters the Everglades.
Another ongoing battle involves the Army Corps’ management of Lake Okeechobee’s water level, which averages nine feet, but can get as high as 16 feet.
Farmers, coastal towns and Palm Beach County want levels kept high, so the lake can serve water supply need. Environmentalists want lower levels that would make the lake healthier and reduce the need for the discharges that damage coastal estuaries. During the rainy season, the Army Corps orders discharges to protect the 143-mile man-made dike that rims the lake.
DeSantis, though, broke with the agriculture-friendly policies of Rick Scott. Everglades restoration has become a bipartisan priority for much of the state’s congressional delegation. For now, momentum is building. It’s too soon to declare success, but success finally seems possible.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.