Everglades Restoration Gains Urgency as Climate Warms

CAPTIVA ISLAND, Florida, January 14, 2008 (ENS) – Global warming means restoration of the Everglades is more important than ever, a University of Miami expert in coastal marine environments told hundreds of conservationists, scientists and state and federal leaders at the Everglades Coalition’s annual conference on the weekend.

Dr. Harold Wanless said recreating enough of the natural flow of water to the 2.4 million-acre marsh to rebuild its eroded peatlands could hold back salt water intrusion from rising sea levels and protect South Florida’s drinking water supply.

Wanless said how much time the Everglades has left is unclear. He pointed to conservative estimates that predict a two foot increase in sea levels by 2100, but cited other studies that indicate the rise could amount to 20 feet by 2200, which would submerge all of South Florida.

The Everglades is often called the
River of Grass. (Photo courtesy

Florida’s Congressional delegation won praise from Governor Charlie Crist for working to authorize new projects to restore the Everglades. But the governor reminded federal lawmakers that Congress has not yet appropriated the funds necessary to actually carry out the Everglades restoration projects.

Opening the conference, Governor Crist, a Republican, said he is committed to working with Florida’s Congressional delegation to seek full authorization and funding for the completion of the Modified Water Deliveries Project, which includes improvements to Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County in south Florida.

The selected plan for Tamiami Trail is a two-mile bridge west and one-mile bridge east. The bridges will allow more natural water flows under the road and into Everglades National Park.

Authorized in 1989, this federal restoration project was originally estimated to cost $83 million. But lack of funding, design changes and construction requirements have resulted in cost escalations to $398 million. Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is projecting that the improvements could cost as much as $600 million due to rising real estate and construction prices.

Florida Congressman Tim Mahoney, a Democrat, told the 300 conference attendees that he has made Everglades restoration a top priority since taking office last year and is proud to have been at the forefront of the effort to override a presidential veto and pass the Water Resources Development Act, WRDA, last November.

Passed for the first time since 2000, the WRDA Bill authorized $1.82 billion for Everglades restoration. Congressman Mahoney cited the success of the bill’s passage, but agreed with the governor that the job is not finished until funding is approved.

“As Congress moves into 2008, we must stay focused and finish the job,” said Mahoney. “We need to protect rural Florida from development by investing in agriculture and we need to restore our rivers and estuaries by fully funding CERP,” an acronym that stands for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Intended to reverse the declining health of the Everglades ecosystem, the 30 year, $10.9 billion federal-state restoration plan was approved eight years ago.

Water from the Everglades
flows into Florida Bay. (Photo
courtesy SFWMD)

Approximately 1.7 billion gallons of water drains from the Everglades to coastal waters every day. CERP would capture most of this water and store it in surface and underground storage areas until it is needed to supply the natural system and serve urban and agricultural needs.

To improve the quality of water discharged into the natural system, wetlands-based stormwater treatment areas will be built. To improve the connectivity of natural areas, about 240 miles of internal levees and canals will be removed, which is expected to result in the recovery of a healthy, sustainable ecosystem in south Florida.

Analyses show that some 80 percent of the new water obtained under CERP would be used to benefit the environment. The remaining 20 percent would benefit urban and agricultural users.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, told delegates he wants the Everglades to receive up to $1.4 billion from a proposed federal program that could generate billions of dollars from companies that emit greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

Legislation now working its way through Congress would establish a market for permits to emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

The measure would permit some of the money to go to aquatic habitats threatened by climate change, including the Everglades.

He said this year’s presidential candidates should be encouraged to make this commitment. Nelson said it would be a start to fulfilling the federal government’s promises to pay for half of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Herons in the Everglades
(Photo courtesy NPS)

“Despite the fact that now most scientists agree that the River of Grass is one of the world’s most endangered places, there are still leaders in Washington who would drop it to the bottom of the nation’s agenda,” Nelson told the delegates.

The state of Florida is already allocating funds to cover its share of CERP. Florida’s 2007-08 budget includes $200 million for the restoration and protection of the River of Grass, allocating $100 million for Everglades restoration, $54 million for the restoration of Lake Okeechobee, as well as $40 million to protect the health of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.

“Florida has taken creative and innovative approaches to expedite our restoration efforts,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole told conference delegates.

“Just this year, the state expanded its restoration efforts to the northern extent of the ecosystem and extended a dedicated trust fund through 2020 to set aside another $2.3 billion for restoration,” he said. The Save Our Everglades Trust Fund was extended for 10 years through 2020.

“Continuing forward on this massive restoration project will take cooperation, partnership and a united message from all of our partners,” said Sole.

“As we restore America’s Everglades, we cannot lose track of how our everyday lives impact our natural environment,” Governor Crist said. “Every step we take to conserve our water resources, to use energy more efficiently and to address climate change are steps that ensure Florida’s beautiful and natural places are preserved for generations to come.”

The Everglades once covered 4,000 square miles and is now less than half that size. It encompasses sawgrass marshes, open-water sloughs, cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps and pinelands.

The Florida Everglades is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Significance under the Ramsar Treaty, a National Park, and an Outstanding Florida Water. The largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, it is the only subtropical preserve on the North American continent.

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