Many parts of the world are facing a freshwater crisis. Severe, long-lasting drought conditions not seen for thousands of years gripped much of the U.S. in 2022. Coalinga, a small town in California, made headlines because water was expected to run out by December.
In our rapidly changing world, could any town become Coalinga?
That’s a question Todd Crowl, director of the Florida International University Institute of Environment, wonders about. It’s hard not to. Florida’s future is intricately connected to the fate of vitally important freshwater ecosystems. In search of solutions, Crowl and institute scientists know one thing for certain: Hope for South Florida’s resilience can be found in the restoration of a freshwater wetland among the world’s largest and most important — the Everglades. What happens to it, happens to us.
Unraveling the complexity of how it all works is an enormous challenge. Almost as enormous as the Everglades. FIU researchers have always faced it head on. Nearly 20 years ago, their findings set water quality standards by advising the restriction of phosphorus to 10 parts per billion for Everglades National Park, a standard incorporated into the federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). And for more than two decades, FIU has led the National Science Foundation-supported Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research (FCE LTER) program that’s collected the most comprehensive, long- term data instrumental to understanding how the Everglades is changing over time, as well as providing a baseline for gauging effectiveness of current and future management strategies.
The work hasn’t stopped. It can’t stop. Restoration and protection depend on this type of data.
With a piece of paper in front of him, Crowl can sketch out the story of how the Everglades is connected to the underground world of water millions of South Floridians rely on.
First, he must jump to the past. More than a century ago, water flowed naturally north to south, marked by seasonal ebbs and flows, and fed the Everglades. Then, Florida’s population grew. And grew. Development and agricultural lands encroached on the River of Grass. Half the Everglades was dredged and drained. Water was rerouted; the flow, disrupted.
A cascade of changes followed. Even underground. That’s where the Biscayne Aquifer — a shallow layer of porous limestone sitting underneath a portion of South Florida — is located. It provides one of the most densely populated areas of the U.S. with fresh water. Rain falling over the Everglades recharges and refills the aquifer, seeping into the ground and filling the crevices. Rainfall over urban areas doesn’t have the same fate. Roads, concrete sidewalks and other infrastructure act as impediments, making it impossible for water to make its journey to the aquifer, so most of it enters canals or the ocean. With the Everglades less than half its original size, there’s less available space to refill the aquifer from which 300 million gallons of water are pumped daily.
Everglades restoration would also help the aquifer fight off rising seas that make it vulnerable to saltwater intrusion and pollution caused by run-off from agricultural lands and residential areas.
“Restoration is key because when water can once again move north to south, more clean water can fill up the Everglades and the aquifer, allowing fresh water to push back the salt water,” Crowl says.
If it all flows as it should, water for Floridians and tourists would be safe, keeping the state’s $1 trillion economy humming. The home of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida would be protected. Threatened and endangered animals, birds, plants and other organisms found nowhere else on Earth, and wholly dependent on the Everglades ecosystem, would still have a place to live.
Crowl, an ecologist who has worked throughout the world, came to FIU in 2014 because South Florida is “the world’s greatest living laboratory for understanding coastal resilience.”
“We have two bays, we have the Florida Keys, barrier islands and a huge population living on the coast,” he says. “In a day, I can go from a freshwater lake to a wetland to a coral reef. We are performing cutting-edge science and developing visionary solutions that will work anywhere in the world.”
FIU’s locations — the main campus less than 10 miles from the Everglades, the other campus on the shores of Biscayne Bay — helped position university scientists literally and figuratively to lead solutions. Crowl realized in addition to where FIU is located, the university had the talent and expertise to address environmental resilience. He envisioned a center or institute to capture the 360-degree nature of the research happening.
That dream became the Institute of Environment. More than 155 investigators — who conduct research in more than 60 countries and are members of national and international advisory organizations — now work alongside hundreds more students to protect natural and built environments. Biologists, chemists, ecologists, environmentalists, engineers, financial analysts and attorneys, among other experts, collaborate with international and local partners. Over the years, Crowl has fostered partnerships and nurtured relationships with the South Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the National Park Service, the Department of Environmental Resources Management and a variety of municipalities to share data and inform decision making. It’s this holistic, collaborative approach he hopes can serve as a blueprint for other imperiled ecosystems around the world.
The collective synergy of countless specialists working side by side to develop sustainable solutions, Crowl says, sets the institute apart.
Saving a national treasure
Nowhere is that more evident than FIU’s role in Everglades restoration. It all started when FIU researchers studied the link between nutrients in the water and organisms living there, and discovered high levels of phosphorus — a common ingredient in fertilizer — was negatively impacting the area. The pollutant was in canal-water discharge coming from sugar cane and farmlands farther up the state, eventually ending up in the Everglades. “The data was absolutely solid, and with the will of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the collaboration resulted in the federal government setting limits on phosphorus levels used today in CERP,” Crowl says.
That finding set the stage for what would become the crown jewel of FIU’s environmental research portfolio — the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research (FCE LTER) program, one of 28 sites funded for long-term ecological research by the NSF. Lead PI John Kominoski, along with co-PIs Evelyn Gaiser, Kevin Grove, Jennifer Rehage and James Fourqurean, oversee the program that includes 102 collaborators and 80 students from 31 academic, agency and NGO partners.
Former director of the Long Term Ecological Research program at NSF, Crowl witnessed firsthand how LTER sites provide the world’s most cutting-edge research in ecosystem sciences. He says FIU’s work in the Everglades is a perfect example of science that informs the world on coastal wetland restoration. Data collected by the program has revealed how restored water flows are benefiting the Everglades and staving off rising seas, as well as providing water managers with the best data to make the best decisions to help coastal wetlands adapt to rising seas, hurricanes and more.
It’s a prime example of what can happen when everyone works together, says Endowed George Barley Eminent Scholars Chair and aquatic ecologist Evelyn Gaiser. “The FCE LTER project allows us to understand how the Everglades is changing in response to variables in climate and human activity, among other things,” Gaiser says. “In working with our water management agencies, it becomes a co- production of science that’s more efficient and thoughtful.”
Steve Davis Ph.D. ’99, chief scientist for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, can also speak to the power of FIU research. “Our job is to advance Everglades restoration. We can only do this with the science behind us. FIU has been instrumental in helping us understand the vulnerabilities of the Everglades and in moving forward with restoration and preservation.” Davis says. “We’re heading in the right direction, and the current generation of scientists understands the value of eliminating competition and bringing in multiple experts to find solutions.”
The next generation
Educating the next generation is key to solving today’s environmental challenges. Some students work in the Everglades, taking airboats or helicopter rides to reach their field sites. Others, like Chloe Vorseth, tackle problems without wading through wetlands.
“I’m not the person studying the plants or counting fish, but I am analyzing data and helping connect people to the environment, whether they are policymakers at the state or federal levels or the general public,” says Vorseth, who earned a master’s in environmental studies at FIU and is an Everglades Foundation ForEverglades Scholar and Ph.D. candidate with a specialty in policy and management and environmental economics.
Vorseth has participated in FIU’s DC Fly-Ins, seminars that bring students to Washington, D.C., to attend advocacy sessions on Capitol Hill and sit down with policy makers. This is one of many ways FIU students receive a unique type of training, according to Gaiser.
“Our students are much more aware of how to do science in a way that solves problems because their work involves collaborating with scientists from FIU and other academic institutions, as well as scientists at the water management agencies,” she says. “These experiences make a difference as the students move on to eventually work for these agencies or lead grant programs.”
Hope for the future
There’s still work to do. So far, though, restoration has resulted in a few glimmers of hope: Water flows in some areas it has not flowed in years.
Those who know the area best are encouraged.
Tristan Tigertail, a member of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, grew up in and around the Everglades. A fourth-generation airboat enthusiast, he piloted his first airboat at the age of 7. Four years later, he became the owner of one.
Today Tigertail works for his uncle as a professional Everglades airboat operator, introducing customers to the beauty of the land he loves. Tigertail has seen the loss of white- tailed deer, birds and cypress domes through the years. He says with efforts now being made to return the flow of water to its original state, the cypress domes are coming back. So are the birds, albeit slowly.
“Sometimes when the tribe elders gather, they reminisce about how the sky used to blacken overhead when a flock of birds took off. There were so many of them, they would block out the sun,” he says. “I’ve never seen that. But I’ve seen positive changes in the past couple of years, and it gives me hope.”
Crowl also retains a sense of optimism, saying, “I assure you, our last chapter has not been written.”
If the last chapter has not yet been written, that means the story is still unfolding. So, against the sprawling, magnificent backdrop of the River of Grass, FIU researchers remain resolved to use the best science and data to safeguard America’s treasure — along with everything and everyone depending on it.
This piece was originally published in FIU Research Magazine and at https://news.fiu.edu/2023/let-it-flow