the River of Grass

For a century people have diked, drained, and diverted the Everglades' water. Now, after a decade of scientific planning and political haggling, what may be the biggest and most dramatic ecological rescue in history is under way. But in the end, how well the restoration works will be up to nature.

By Ted Levin


Sitting on the bow of an airboat, 15 miles from the nearest road, I watch mist rising off the leafy marsh. Sawgrass extends to the horizon, broken only by a few islands of green and by shallow braids of water, where lilies and bladderworts bloom in the heat. Angry clouds pile up to the south, while in the east, beyond the early-morning congestion of Fort Lauderdale, shafts of yellow sunlight rake the sky. It's late April, the tip of a new day, and the tip of a new season in the Florida Everglades.

It's also a new beginning for one of the world's grandest and most beleaguered wetlands, now on the cusp of perhaps the largest ecological restoration ever undertaken. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan will cost nearly $8 billion and take almost half a century to complete, and even then there are a multitude of uncertainties that could derail it along the way. But every one of the dozens of scientists who had a hand in shaping the plan agrees on one thing: It couldn't have come any sooner.

In essence, the plan's main objective is to recapture as much as 1.7 billion gallons of the fresh water currently being flushed out to sea every day and redirect that water back to the ailing wetlands--all without flooding South Florida's farms and booming cities. For years the Everglades ecosystem, which stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys, has been on the brink of ecological collapse. Its unique mosaic of sawgrass marshes, wet prairies, sloughs, and hardwood swamps has been drained and diked over the past hundred years, rendering the landscape habitable for people but untenable for panthers, egrets, crocodiles, and dozens of other Everglades-dependent species. The disruption of seasonal water flows has wreaked havoc on the ecosystem's delicate balance. In addition, invasive species are replacing natives at a rapid pace, and phosphorus runoff from agriculture has severely diminished water quality. Wildlife has taken the greatest hit: Fish numbers have dropped precipitously, and populations of nesting wading birds such as wood storks and white ibis have plummeted by more than 90 percent in the past 50 years.

The $7.8 billion restoration, which is made up of nearly 70 different projects, has many scientists believing they can reverse this decline. Still, no one is guaranteeing success. "Our understanding of the Everglades is based almost entirely on information collected after it became a disturbed ecosystem," says John Ogden, a senior ecologist for the South Florida Water Management District, one of the agencies carrying out the restoration. "We don't know what the natural system really is, so we're basing these projects on a set of predictions on how we think it will respond."

The good news is that the restoration will eliminate some 240 miles of canals and levees, thus allowing for more natural flows of water to course through the River of Grass. The plan also calls for the construction of new filtering marshes that will cleanse the runoff from 700,000 acres of farms and sugarcane fields, as well as artificial reservoirs and underground water-storage facilities designed to ensure a steady supply of water for South Florida's thirsty residents. The water stored in the reservoirs and underground aquifers is to be released periodically, to mimic the historical wet-dry cycle.

The bad news is that no one knows if any of this will really work--whether the wildlife will actually rebound and whether the 300 wells drilled 1,000 feet underground will be able to hold much of the water that is now being shunted out to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. What scientists do admit is that there are no ironclad guidelines for the restoration; some of the technology will have to be worked out along the way. "Maybe it's premature to implement a plan," says Stuart Applebaum, chief of ecosystem restoration in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville office. "But the Everglades is in dire straits, and I don't want to do a postmortem."

"What we have out there now is Everglades in name only.
It may look like the Everglades, but it doesn't function like the Everglades."

Historically, nearly everything south of Disney World was covered by a low-lying, seasonally flooded wetland; the Everglades ecosystem itself was more than 60 miles wide and so shallow that a grown man could walk across it without getting his hair wet (unless he got mired in the peat, the soil formed from decaying plants). The wide floodplains of the Everglades--called marl prairies, and as slick as grease when they're wet--were flooded and dried every year. During wet periods, when the sloughs spilled over their banks and flooded the limy, rock-studded earth, the prairies became a biological mecca; every winter the fish marooned in drying potholes and depressions attracted thousands of wading birds.

To seed the clouds that bring rain to the Everglades, there must be thousands of square miles of water that moves almost imperceptibly; then the sun pulls the water back to the sky, where it forms new clouds. Nothing in South Florida, however, is less predictable than the weather. Florida gets about 55 inches of rain a year. On average, three-quarters of that rainfall occurs during the wet season--from June to October--but the seam between the seasons is periodically obliterated by multiyear cycles of flood and drought.

Anything that lives in the Everglades must tolerate these swings; some life-forms rely on them. The seeds of sawgrass and cypress, for example, germinate primarily on dry ground, even though the plants themselves can survive a year or more of inundation. The unpredictability of South Florida's weather places the snail kite--a red-legged, crow-size hawk--and the robust wood stork at opposite ends of this meteorological seesaw. The annual wet season and prolonged periods of flood are good for the kites, which eat snails that live in permanently flooded marshes. The annual dry season and prolonged periods of drought are good for the wood storks, which gorge on fish concentrated in the shrinking pools. Who could imagine a more unusual system than one that supports two species of birds that depend on such divergent meteorological swings?

Not the Army Corps of Engineers, which in 1948 began a massive flood-control project to tame the sodden landscape. A year earlier torrential rains had dumped about 10 feet of water on the Everglades, flooding most of South Florida, including much of Miami. The outcry from citizens and farmers prompted a call to arms; during the next three decades the Corps constructed an elaborate network of more than 1,600 miles of canals and levees that subdivided the Everglades into an agricultural district, three water-conservation areas, and a national park. The Corps' engineers straightened the Kissimmee River, one of the main sources of water in the Everglades ecosystem, transforming it from a curving, 105-mile-long waterway into a 56-mile-long canal; they also dredged and widened the Caloosahatchee River, which diverts Everglades water to the Gulf of Mexico.

For the millions who have flocked to the Sunshine State in the past 50 years, the plan has worked marvelously; for the region's plants and animals, 68 species of which are either federally or regionally endangered or threatened, it's been a disaster. "Unfortunately, they built a system that can't deal with those ecological extremes inherent to the Everglades," says Ogden. To provide both flood protection and a steady supply of drinking water for South Florida's 6 million residents, natural resource managers are forced to store excess water in the conservation areas--affording those areas little chance for a natural dry-down cycle. As a result, parts of both the northern and the southern Everglades remain bone dry, and for unnaturally long periods. Muck fires, triggered by lightning strikes in the unusually dry conditions, have devastated large swaths of the wetlands. In total, many areas of the Everglades are either drowning or burning, and the national park--at the southern tip--is on life support. "What we have out there now is Everglades in name only," says Ogden. "It may look like the Everglades, but it doesn't function like the Everglades."

"We won't be able to return the Everglades to the way it looked in 1850, but we'll be successful if we can restore the ecological vibrancy that allows wildlife and birds to flourish."

During the last decades of the 19th century, before the demands of the feather trade crippled Florida's wading-bird populations, some biologists speculated that as many as 1.5 million of the birds nested in the mangrove-lined rivers at the southern end of Everglades National Park. Ogden thinks that number may be inflated. The high-end estimate he favors is 250,000--most of them white ibis--a number recorded in both the 1933 and 1934 breeding seasons by the Audubon Society wardens whose job it was to patrol the waterlogged backcountry during the first half of the past century (something the state of Florida was loath to do).

Today the mangrove rookeries stand empty and silent in testimony to engineering gone awry. Populations of wood storks and white ibis, both tactile feeders, and snowy egrets, immaculate little herons that comb the shallows as if they were wired on caffeine, have crashed or moved elsewhere. To accommodate populations of the federally endangered wood stork and snail kite, ecological restoration must re-create capricious wetlands, which are routinely enriched by yearly cycles of wet and dry punctuated by extended drought and violent flood.

Alligators, a keystone species whose excavations once attracted a jubilee of aquatic life to the marl prairies, have substantially redistributed themselves. When normally wet areas are deprived of water, the gators are forced to move off the marl edges and into the much deeper central Everglades, where prey is hard to come by. Today the marl prairies, where the alligators once ruled, are mostly barren of life. But, says Ogden, if these rich prairies can once again become suitable for alligators, "then we've gone a long way toward restoration."

Because water cues the nesting and distribution of wading birds, alligators, and snail kites, and many lesser-known species, too, ecologists hope the replumbed system will once again become a wildlife version of the movie Field of Dreams: If you water it, they will come.

But scientists are split on exactly how much water should be put back into the Everglades. One camp, which consists mostly of biologists and hydrologists from Everglades National Park, insists that anything less than 80 percent of historical water flows will be insufficient to kick-start the ecosystem on the road back to health. The current plan calls for only about 70 percent of those flows to be spread out across the Everglades. "But it isn't as if you get 70 percent of the ecological functions back with 70 percent of the water," says Tom Van Lent, a hydrologist with Everglades National Park. Based on computer modeling, park scientists have determined that 80 to 90 percent of the historical water volume is the amount necessary to trigger conditions that would be favorable to the marl prairies, the southern estuaries, and nesting wading birds.

Other scientists, mostly from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, contend that less water will be adequate, as long as certain depths are restored in most of the decimated parts of the ecosystem. Given that half of the original Everglades has been swallowed up by houses and sugarcane, these scientists say the Everglades ecosystem can't even absorb the same amount of water it held a hundred years ago. Recent studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, which reveal substantial peat loss in the drier parts of the Everglades, seem to back up this claim. "Our information shows that these areas have lost 39 to 69 percent of their soil," says Dan Scheidt, a senior scientist with the EPA.

The construction of levees and the flatter landscape--brought on by the loss of peat--changes the whole water equation, says Lorraine Heisler, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We can put all the water back in there, but with a different topography we're not going to have the same watershed," she says. "It's like restoring a river in a different channel." The impact of the extra water would be greatest on the central Everglades, where a significant percentage of the tree islands--wooded habitats in the marshes that took more than a thousand years to develop and that are stressed by the unnaturally deep water--have already drowned (see "Forgotten Islands," in the print version of Audubon).

"Restoring historic sheet flow is desirable but not everywhere possible," concurs Ogden, "particularly with today's water quality being what it is in the Everglades." In fact, agricultural runoff is considered the 800-pound gorilla lurking in the background. New water-quality standards have reduced the amount of phosphorus being pumped into the marshes, but there is still plenty getting spewed out, and those 700,000 agricultural acres sitting near the top of the ecosystem aren't going anywhere in the foreseeable future. "From a scientific point of view," Ogden adds, "pumping extra water into the Everglades can cause as many problems as it solves, especially if that water isn't clean enough, or if it floods tree islands." Nonetheless, the park's concerns have not gone unheeded: Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers have agreed to consider adding an extra 250,000 acre-feet of water to the restoration plan, which park biologists say will get them closer to that 80 to 90 percent figure.

What the Everglades needs is a King Solomon to consider all the water politics and tease out all the trade-offs. "Everyone wants their piece of the system to be fixed right now," says Robert Pace, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But it's not easy to please everyone." In the end, success will be measured by how well the ecosystem and all its creatures bounce back. Ecologists will be looking to see if healthy populations of fish and wading birds and alligators can be sustained, if exotic vegetation can be eliminated, and if tree islands can be restored as havens of biodiversity. Then, after the slow creep of time, would come the building of peat. "We won't be able to return the Everglades to the way it looked in 1850," says Heisler, "but we'll be successful if we can restore the ecological vibrancy that allows wildlife and birds to flourish."

Back on the airboat, under a wide sky and a blazing sun, I close my eyes and imagine that it's late January 2050--about a dozen years after the target completion date for the Everglades restoration. Shoals of tiny fish gather in depressions on the marl prairies, waiting. Tens of thousands of puddles. Millions of fish. Day by day, the pools shrink, and the fish--mostly mosquito fish, marsh killifish, least killifish, sailfin mollies--wait for death, impaled by the lances of the sun or speared by the squadrons of birds that I picture gathering here each morning. Along the apron of the Everglades, time has always been measured by the presence or absence of water. Here, it's the middle of the dry season, and this bumper crop of ill-fated fish, crayfish, and grass shrimp, which are themselves three or four years in the making, may well trigger one of North America's most awesome pageants: a convocation of wading birds.

Ted Levin, a Vermont-based writer, has just completed a new book, Liquid Land: The Natural and Unnatural History of the Everglades, which will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press.


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© 2001  NASI

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Stephen Savage

climate crisis

By the end of the century, global warming may have forever altered the Everglades. The average world temperature is projected to rise 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and scientists blame at least part of the rise on the burning of fossil fuels. Warmer temperatures would melt glaciers and heat the oceans, thereby expanding them and raising sea level anywhere from four inches to three feet. "If the median of these projections comes to pass, about a third of the Everglades could become open water by 2050," says climate expert Michael Oppenheimer of the nonprofit Environmental Defense. So what's an Everglades lover to do? First, use less energy, which will help curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Individual efforts, though, must be part of a broader vision, both within the United States and worldwide.

--Matthew Woods


Stephen Savage

people pressure

They came. They saw. They called it home. More than 10 millennia ago, the first migrants to Florida's southeast coast found an Eden with an infinite supply of fresh drinking water, and they've been coming ever since. Every year, new migrants by the tens of thousands put down stakes in the 16 counties surrounding the River of Grass. Today the population of South Florida is 6 million, and a fierce drought is drastically curtailing water use. By 2050 the population will top 12 million, squeezing the fragile ecosystem from west and east, beggaring conserved water in times of drought, and ratcheting up demands for flood protection in times of rainfall. Even if the restoration plan is completed without a hitch, increased water use and pollution could imperil the good health of the Everglades.

--Sydney Horton


Stephen Savage

funding fears

The complexity of the Everglades restoration is matched only by the complexity of paying for it. Even the initial $7.8 billion price tag is deceptive. The figure is in 1999 dollars and will, of course, wobble and expand as the 38-year project proceeds. (It may very well end up as the costliest public works project in U.S. history.) The 50-50 split between federal and state money adds to the uncertainty. The state has committed to pay its $200 million annual share--a mix of general revenue and water-district money--for the first 10 years. The federal half is a trickier beast. Florida must go back to Congress each year to lobby for a slice of the appropriations budget. Boom years should be no problem. But if Congress feels strapped, money could dry up. Luckily, Florida's governor, a key advocate of the plan, has a friend in high places.

--Chris Chang