Last week, we discussed the history of wetlands drainage and the need for restoration. Today, Everglades restoration is in full swing. Since former Florida Gov. Bob Graham announced the Save Our Everglades Program in 1983, there have been many hurdles to overcome. This initiative made the first formal call for an interagency effort to restore the natural flow of the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and from the lake to Everglades National Park.
It emphasized reversing watershed-scale changes in vegetation, decreases in animal populations, degraded water quality and higher salinities resulting from drainage of Everglades wetlands.
Nature is responding positively to steps taken toward restoration already. In 2007, the once endangered American crocodile was relisted as a threatened species because of its growing population.
Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades National Park noted that visitors are reporting seeing more birds than in decades past.
In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The first CERP initiatives that directly benefit the park address the operational plans of the Central and South Florida Project. This means that the timing and direction of surface water flows through the Everglades watershed are being revised by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).
The adjustments were first applied as the Interim Operational Plan following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion that the Cape Sable seaside sparrow population was in jeopardy of extinction. In 2011, the short-term plan became the long-term Everglades Transitional Restoration Plan that is updated as new information is learned from monitoring both the sparrow population and water levels in the park.
The timing of flows into the park are adjusted to support conditions needed for the sparrow to successfully breed and nest. The sparrow's seasonal life cycle comes close to when other animal species, such alligators and many wading birds, are breeding, nesting, and foraging. The Everglades just does not allow much flexibility for when many nesting species can reproduce given that there are only two climatic seasons: a wet season from May to October and a dry season from November to April.
For this reason, getting the water right for the seaside sparrow is viewed as benefiting populations of other species, too.
The biggest hurdle and success for restoration have been improvements to water quality. Bob Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resource Center at Everglades National Park, explained that teamwork is required for success.
"Federal, state, local agencies and the tribes have worked together for nearly 25 years to determine how best to reduce nutrients in the Everglades watershed," Johnson said.
The effort began with the Consent Decree passed in 1992. This is legislation that requires the state to find ways to improve Everglades water quality. The limit for phosphorus, for example, was set at 10 parts per billion, which closely matches the naturally low nutrient environment of the southern Everglades. To meet that limit, farms within the Everglades watershed had to change the way they were fertilizing their fields and how they were disposing of the runoff of water from their farms.
The SFWMD has played a big role in constructing water runoff treatment areas, also known as stormwater treatment areas or simply STAs. They use plants to absorb excess nutrients in water flowing from the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee before it is sent downstream toward federal lands. There are also STAs along the border of the park to ensure water coming in from adjacent lands also meets water quality standards.
An example of a recently completed project that is specifically intended to keep the water clean in the park is the construction of the C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project.
Ernie Marks, director of the SFWMD's Everglades Restoration Division, says, "This project is operating to ensure clean water does not seep out of the park and stays within the natural system where it is most needed."
Keeping clean water in the park is important because the primary purpose of this project is to direct freshwater flowing from Taylor Slough to western Florida Bay in a manner that will restore historical salinities and support vegetation and historical water patterns in the state-owned Southern Glades and Model Lands.
The next big success is anticipated in 2018, when water will be expected to continually flow under the 1-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail, U.S. Highway 41. The length and location of the bridge will allow the distribution of water coming into the park from the state's Water Conservation Areas to be more balanced with respect to the historical distribution and seasonal timing of water flow.
This means that the overly dry northeast area of the park will finally be wetter and the overly wet northwest area drier. The missing piece is the needed volume of water. This is expected to be delivered in 2026 following construction of nearly 10 miles of additional raised road and bridging along Tamiami Trail that will be funded under CERP's Central Everglades Planning Project.
The project includes benefits to the state's Water Conservation Areas and the Modified Water Deliveries Project, which is specific to addressing the restoration needs of the park. According to the Army Corps of Engineers' planned design of CERP's future projects, the current volume of water reaching the park will increase fourfold.
The comprehensive approach of Everglades restoration to address altered freshwater flows, water quality, recovery of threatened and endangered species, non-native species management, and management of wildfires and prescribed burns will result in Everglades ecosystems becoming more resilient to disturbance and recover faster and more naturally.
Everglades restoration will likely continue to be a challenging process. However, there is much to gratify those involved. The most satisfying part of Everglades restoration for superintendent Pedro Ramos is the widespread personal commitment.
"Despite all the differences of opinion as to how to reach a successful outcome," he said, "everyone who is involved cares and wants to be a part of the effort."
Bob Johnson most appreciates the educational process that is happening. "I enjoy having people understand the integration of how the Everglades fits into their daily lives and then see them understand why it is so important to restore it."