Louisiana sees a mirror image in efforts to save Florida's Everglades

Published: May. 20, 2014 at 9:46 PM CDT
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An alligator seems to play peekaboo in some marsh grass in Everglades National Park
An alligator seems to play peekaboo in some marsh grass in Everglades National Park

THE EVERGLADES, FL (WVUE) - Florida has made progress carrying out its ambitious Everglades restoration effort, but faces many of the same frustrations plaguing Louisiana's coastal restoration plans.

One of America's great natural areas might remind the casual visitor of Louisiana, populated by a couple million alligators, thousands of wading birds and vistas that seem mirror images.

Though different in many ways, the two landscapes share another trait: Man has radically altered the forces that shaped them and now seeks to, at least partially, turn back the clock.

For thousands of years, water spilled out of Lake Okeechobee and crept toward the Gulf of Mexico, through sawgrass, swamps and - by Louisiana standards - giant mangrove trees.

Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called this unique place, "a river of grass," a moniker proudly adopted by Floridians to describe the Everglades.

Aida Arik, a hydrologist with the Everglades Foundation, explains the plumbing here used to work differently.

"Water would flow as a sheet over land," Arik said.

The Everglades are the only place in America where a visitor will spot breeding storks, the Wood Stork, and the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist.

"There are no other Everglades in the world," Arik said.

Just as in the Louisiana river delta, man sought to improve on the plumbing, aggressively draining, damning and diverting water through the 20th century.

South Florida has one of the world's most elaborate canal systems, highways of water draining what seemed a vast wasteland decades ago.

"Everybody looks at swamps and says, 'that's a useless thing.' No, it's not," said Dr. Jerry Lorenz, State Research Director for Audubon Florida.

As developers and farmers found other uses for water, over half the original Everglades were lost.

Water that had historically flowed south was channeled to the east and west coasts of Florida, often loaded with the fertilizer runoff from farms that fouled estuaries and harmed the seafood industry.

"The Everglades is like a giant jigsaw puzzle," said Eric Draper, Executive Director of Audubon Florida. "It's even more complicated, like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle."

In the year 2000, Congress approved The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a $10 billion effort over 30 years to restore the system to a more natural flow.

Just as in Louisiana, people in Florida learned that winning Congressional authorization for a federal waterworks project often bears little connection to actually building one. That changed over the last couple of years, as Florida completed some of the first key projects.

Last year, crews elevated the first of six miles of roadway along the Tamiami Trail, an east-west highway in South Florida that acts as one long levee, choking Everglades National Park.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers redesigned a major canal outside the park - the C-111 - to the channel more water into Florida Bay.

"We're not getting the federal authorizations and resources that we need," said Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Just last month, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review panel missed a deadline to approve a key part of the restoration effort. The $2 billion Central Everglades Plan bundles half a dozen different projects, designed to move more water south to the national park, increase South Florida drinking water supplies, and lessen discharges of water on the east and west coasts of Florida.

Environmentalists believe the delay was responsible for leaving the critical projects out of the Water Resources Development Act, a massive waterworks project working its way through Congress and threatens to delay their authorization by years.

However, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson points out the CEPP study has progressed at a far faster pace than the average Corps project and the review panel could sign off on the plan by this summer.

That same bill, expected to be approved by both the House and Senate, also authorizes the Morganza to the Gulf levee system to provide hurricane protection for the Houma area.

Without the authorization, water projects stall, often sitting as nothing more than plans on a shelf for years or decades.

Nearly $1 billion dollars in other work for the Everglades made it into the bipartisan bill published Tuesday, including a project to bring fresh water to Biscayne Bay and $627 million to would capture and treat polluted Lake Okeechobee water.

The stakes are huge for this American treasure and Florida's multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

"Why should people care about the Everglades is like asking why should you care about the Washington Monument or the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon or any of the other great monuments or places that we have in our country," Audubon's Draper said.

In fact, the issue is not just for tree huggers and bird watchers.

Turns out, fresh water feeding the Everglades also seeps into a giant aquifer that provides drinking water to seven million people, including all of metro Miami.

"When I come and I talk to people about birds, they're like, 'whatever, my favorite kind of bird is fried,'" joked Jane Graham, Audubon Florida's Everglades Policy Associate.

However, Graham said, when she explains the connection to water supplies "that's when they realize, okay, this is important."

For those projects that have been completed, environmentalists insist the early signs are positive, as vegetation springs back to life in some areas and wildlife returns.  However, experts warn it's far too early to know definitively how well the projects are working.

"We didn't impact the Everglades overnight," said Charles Pattison, President of the group 1000 Friends of Florida. "It's going to take many, many years to correct many of the mistakes that we now realize."

The effort's staunches advocates concede that others are watching Florida closely to see if this first major restoration actually works.

"It really is the model for many other projects," Hecker said. "If we can do this successfully, we hope it is a template for success that can be used elsewhere."

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