Ernest Barnett
 
 

Lessons from the Everglades
 
 

(Excerpts from the full paper presented in the "uncorrected, advance proof" of The Pantanal of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, Hudson MacArthur Publishers, copyright 2000 by Waterland Research Institute.)


 

The Everglades is a slow-moving river of grass. What we associate most predominately with this system is an extensive sawgrass community. It has sloughs that are characterized by periphyton and algae. It is a very nutrient-limited system, with historically low levels of phosphorus, and pristine waters. In the heart of the Everglades, the water is gin clear, like a spring. Thus, tiny amounts of additional nutrients in the system can effect catastrophic alterations to the system’s biodiversity. 

The Everglades is home to a tremendous amount of wildlife. Alligators are probably the most notable or most recognizable, with crocodiles at the very southern end. Also, large mammals like panthers and white-tail deer live in the tree islands and now reside predominately in the western part of the system. There are lots of birds, such as snowy egrets, herons, limpkins, and in the very southern end, roseate spoonbills. 

As a general orientation, the Everglades is really a large contiguous ecosystem that starts in the Orlando area. The water courses south down the Kissimmee River through Lake Okeechobee, through an Everglades agricultural area and water conservation areas — which are historic, remnant Everglades — terminating in Everglades National Park, and finally in Florida Bay. 

Around the 1850s, this was a very wet and wild system. What would happen is that there would be tremendous rains during the wet season. The Kissimmee Basin would fill up Lake Okeechobee, the large lake in the center of Florida. When Lake Okeechobee reached its capacity, it would overflow and spill into the Everglades, and meander, over a very long period of time, for a considerable distance, and eventually discharge into the estuaries in the southern end. 

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Back in the 1800s, the conventional wisdom was that wetlands were wastelands. They were swamps, whose value came through draining, damming and diking. Hamilton Distant, a developer in Philadelphia, came to Florida in the 1800s to tame this very wild system. He started by draining and ditching in the Upper Kissimmee River and in the Caloosahatchee River. Between 1905-1948, a very extensive series of levies, ditches and dikes were built. In 1948, hurricanes caused catastrophic loss of life around Lake Okeechobee, and the Army Corps of Engineers authorized building the central and south Florida flood control system, which resulted in the very manipulated system that you see today. There are over 800 miles of canals, hundreds of water control structures, pumps, levees and weirs. 

Only a remnant of the historic Everglades remains. Essentially, over half of the Everglades have been lost to either agricultural development or urban development. We hear a lot about its conversion to agricultural land. What is often overlooked is that an equal, if not greater, amount of land has been lost to urban development. In addition, there are extensive invasive cattail populations which, due to the introduction of nutrients, have out-competed the native vegetation, the saw grass and periphyton communities. 

If you could see a picture of the Miami River in 1912 and compare it to today’s river, you would begin to grasp the tremendous amount of development that this drainage system has allowed in South Florida — and we are only just beginning to face the battle. In 1995, there were about 4.5 million people in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties. By the year 2025, projections are that there will be almost seven million people. By the year 2050, 12 million. A tremendous conversion has taken place in what used to be the Everglades into residential and agricultural areas. 

Today over five million people live in these three counties. Because the natural balance has been disrupted, we have a series of either feast or famine. There are very, very wet years, very, very wet seasons, where the Everglades overflow with water, causing permanent damage to the tree islands; and there are prolonged periods of drought, very cyclical, on a decade basis, where the Everglades dry up. It is an exaggerated flood-and-drought cycle resulting from the tremendously altered hydrology. 

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The South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Working Group is a multi-agency working group. The group stated as recently as 1997, but recognized earlier, that “the entire ecosystem, natural and built, is in peril. The system is precariously perched between survival and destruction, and the pressures are increasing.” 

Some indicators of the pressures on the natural systems show the stresses on it. . . . Wading bird populations have dropped by up to 95 percent. Sixty-eight plant and animal species are threatened or endangered, and two million acres of water are lost from the natural system annually. Phosphorus from the Lake Okeechobee basin in the Everglades agricultural area is entering surrounding wetlands and causing an imbalance of the natural flora. Increased discharges of fresh water are harming our coastal estuaries. We have one million acres of the ecosystem under health advisories for mercury contamination of the fish, and over 1.5 million acres infested with invasive exotic plants: malelueca, Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, Old World climbing fern, to mention a few. 

In our built system we are also seeing some environmental stresses. Agricultural land has been decreased by 16 percent. By the year 2050, it is projected that the population will triple in the area. The east coast of Florida has millions of acres of contaminated sites. Some indicators show that serious problems lie ahead. 

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The restoration effort came up with three main goals. The first goal is to get the water right. We have disrupted the hydrology, quality, quantity, time and distribution of water within the system, and we have to mimic nature again. 

How are we going to do it? The Kissimmee River was channelized back in the 1960s. Today we are embarking on a $400 million restoration, where the central third of the river will be reintroduced back to its historical oxbows and meanders. We will backfill over 22 miles of channels and re-contour over nine miles of the river channel. That will allow more storage and a more natural system in the northern part of the river.  . . .  We are also restoring the historic sheet flow through the channel systems. A lot of research is being done into the amount of phosphorus that is acceptable, and we are decreasing the amount of fresh water entering the estuaries. 

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On a very large scale, the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project is currently being reevaluated by the Water Management District Corps of Engineers and other agencies, including my own. We are reviewing how well it has functioned, and we are trying to undo some of the catastrophic environmental effects that have resulted. This is an $8 billion project that will be 50-50 cost-shared among the federal government, the state of Florida and local governments. We are paying $8 billion to undo the environmental consequences of the past. 

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The second main restoration goal, after getting the water right, is to restore the natural systems. What is being looked at is habitat restoration and species diversity restoration. One effort taking place at the very southern end is the Southern Everglades Restoration Alliance, where the natural flows are being restored to Everglades National Park, putting the fresh water back into Florida Bay as it is suppose to enter — the right quality, quantity and timing. This restoration effort includes a multi-species recovery plan involving those 68 rare and endangered species and developing one unified restoration plan that takes into account the needs of all species. The Florida panther is one of those endangered species. Sixty-seven others are on the endangered list, and we need a protection and recovery plan that does not conflict with other species’ needs. It will be the first effort in the country that looks at an entire watershed as a protected species effort. Also being looked at are land use patterns. 

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Our third restoration goal is to transform the built environment. A tremendous economy exists in South Florida based on natural resources. It includes over $2 billion annually in agriculture, $14 billion annually in tourism and $7 billion annually in development. One of these projects is Eastward Ho, a play on the old Westward Ho slogan. What we hope to do is provide incentives to do “in-fill” in the urban area, in the urban corridor, and keep people from sprawling out into the Everglades. 

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How are these goals being achieved? There are two common types of approaches. There is adaptive management, which is based on modeling, support studies and monitoring. We provide a continuous feedback loop. We try something, see how well it works and then we modify it. 

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There is also something referred to as innovative management, where we use science to drive our decision-making. We are looking at the entire system from the Orlando area and the Kissimmee all the way to Florida Bay. We are trying integrated governance, where the state, local, federal and regional governments work together. We are creating broad-based partnerships with the private sector and others, and we are striving to include stakeholders through public outreach and communication. 

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We are working with federal and state governments in a partnership, developing a long-term strategic plan that will pull all of our restoration efforts together under one umbrella and provide a framework for future adaptive management, over a 50-year planning horizon. What kind of buy-in do we have? The participants in this effort include six federal departments and seven agencies and commissions of the state of Florida. It includes two native American Indian tribes, 16 counties and scores of municipal governments. There are representatives from major industries, special interest groups and the five million residents. Restoration cannot be accomplished without the full buy-in of the people living in the area. 

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The increasing knowledge and restoration methods should be relevant for similar habitats around the world, such as in the Pantanal and other large wetland systems. We are making strides, fostering sustainable urban and agricultural zones which should be models for urban areas internationally. 
 

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A key concept in all of this is that we must have a sense of shared responsibility. Historically in the Everglades, there has been a lot of finger pointing. Restoration efforts began in earnest after the State of Florida was sued by the federal government for failing to enforce water quality standards. What we recognize now is that these problems do not originate at one level of government, and you cannot trace them back to one program or to one level’s inability to do things. These problems originate from combined actions on all levels of society, and we have to work together to solve them. 

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Past mistakes were often the result of public attitudes and the desire for quick and easy solutions, together with having a complete misunderstanding of how large ecosystems work. We have learned that today's public attitudes are changing. We are beginning to understand the natural systems' inherent connection to the built environment, its economic value and the complexity of the problems, not just those involved in the restoration but in the public as a whole.

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Let me share a quote from U.S. Vice President Al Gore when he visited the Everglades in December, 1997 for the 50th anniversary of Everglades National Park. He said, “In Florida, the environment is the economy.” I think it has taken us 50 years to fully realize that fact. If we do not put our natural system on a sustainable course, we put our economy in jeopardy. 
 

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I believe the plight of the Everglades is quite simply the result of a public policy 50 years ago when people thought the best thing to do would be to drain and alter the natural systems and use them for agricultural and urban purposes. We have learned that this policy was a mistake. In the cost-benefit analysis, which we all do when we look at the decisions we have made, I firmly believe that the value of the natural system has been grossly underestimated. 

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What we found in Florida is that the long-term consequences of such a policy — of putting too many people in too small an area and in too sensitive an environment — is that the general public ends up paying the astronomical costs eventually for its restoration, through the $8 billion in taxes that needs to be generated today. I urge those deliberating on the future of the Pantanal to recognize that some development is inevitable and that some development when properly done is good. But that development needs to be done in a manner that is sensitive to the natural system and that allows the natural system to continue to function on its own. If I can give one take-home message to end, it would be to learn from what happened in Florida and to invest in preservation up front. 

 

Proceedings

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