(The Nation)

blueprint for the future

Perhaps the greatest promise of the Everglades restoration is that it will serve as a road map for the rescue of other battered ecosystems across the United States.

By Jon R. Luoma

Progress in the battle to restore ecological health to the great "River of Grass" called the Everglades comes as welcome news to conservationists everywhere. But the long-hoped-for Everglades restoration plan is resonating especially loudly around three other large and ailing ecosystems, far from South Florida. Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, and the Upper Mississippi River all share one thing with the Everglades: Each of these biologically rich complexes of water and wetlands has suffered from decades of human hubris and ignorance.

The great naturalist Aldo Leopold used the term "deranged watershed" for the destruction of these kinds of natural systems. Now conservationists are pressing for new or enhanced regional and national programs aimed at easing the "derangement" and restoring at least a good measure of ecosystem health, even if the cost must inevitably run, as it will in South Florida, into the billions of dollars.

The Upper Mississippi River ("upper" refers to the 1,366 miles of the waterway north of the river's confluence with the mighty Ohio) runs relatively free from its trickling origins in the pine woods at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota until it reaches Minneapolis and St. Paul. But from the Twin Cities south, locks, dams, and levees have converted the Mississippi from a meandering, ever-changing wild river into a series of stable pools designed for barge and boat traffic, not for biodiversity. When the river flowed free, its side channels filled with sediment, and new channels formed and flooded. Each spring the river pulsed with meltwater, inundating wetlands, carrying nutrients to the floodplain, and creating spawning habitat for fish. The dry months of summer drew down the waters, clearing them of suspended silt and boosting the growth of both aquatic and floodplain plants--critical for fish and wildlife.

In San Francisco Bay, nearly 80 percent of the original 300,000 acres of tidal marshes and seasonal wetlands have been filled, drained, or diked into oblivion. Among other ecological services, these wetlands served as kidneys, filtering water for the estuary, the largest and most biologically important one on the Pacific Coast. The Bay Area's current population of 7 million is expected to increase by more than 20 percent in just the next 20 years. This will only increase the pressure on an ecosystem that, among other things, serves as a stopping point for half the birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway and provides habitat for some 500 species of fish and wildlife.

On the Atlantic Coast, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America and the second largest on the planet; its 64,000-square-mile watershed is larger than the state of Florida. More than 100,000 tributary streams and rivers drain into the 195-mile-long bay, and therein lie much of the Chesapeake's troubles. States such as Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the heart of the estuary's watershed, are home to more than 15 million people, and the presence of those people has loaded the bay with pollutants. For decades, sediment from roads, lawns, and parking lots, manure from the region's abundant chicken farms, pollutants from septic tanks and sewage-treatment plants, even nitrogen emitted by cars and power plants have been effectively overfertilizing Chesapeake Bay.

Towering reefs of oysters once helped filter out silt and nutrients, but overfishing and the sheer volume of pollution entering the bay has overwhelmed the system. Once the Chesapeake's oysters could essentially filter all the bay's waters every five or six days. Today, with oyster numbers down by about 98 percent and with far more pollution, the same process takes almost a year.

Experts on all three watersheds insist that there is real hope that large parts of these ecosystems can be not only saved but reclaimed, and that the ambitious program to restore the Everglades provides just the sort of framework these other vast aquatic ecosystems need.

"We use the analogy of the Everglades all the time," says Dan McGuiness, director of Audubon's Upper Mississippi River Campaign. "We don't have any doubt that the prescription for restoring the river means an Everglades-scale congressional appropriation and the same kind of national focus."

As it is, he adds, the funding received by various federal agencies responsible for maintaining this part of the Mississippi, principally the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, does not approach the billions of dollars it will take to restore major reaches of the river. McGuiness envisions a campaign to buy, from willing sellers, thousands of acres of farmland that lie in the great river's floodplain, so that levees can be removed and both permanent and seasonal wetlands can be restored. He sees a day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when boaters and commercial shippers will agree that for the Mississippi to live, some semblance of the natural water-flow cycles must be established, especially the late-summer drawdown, a phenomenon that could be artificially mimicked by regulating the river's flow through the locks and dams.

Debbie Drake, director of Audubon's San Francisco Bay Restoration Program, says that her West Coast effort, which started in April 2000, is dreaming similarly big dreams. Relying heavily on a report called the "Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Report," released last year by more than 100 scientists from a range of disciplines and organizations, the program is focused on restoring the estuary's ecologically vital marshes, mudflats, and seasonal wetlands. One prime target: thousands of acres of former commercial salt ponds on the estuary's southern edge, where the last industrial salt producer still operating has declared its willingness to sell 19,000 acres to the public. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that this property, plus an additional 2,000 acres available around the South Bay, could be restored to marshes, channels, salt pans, and tidal flats, which would benefit species ranging from harbor seals to the salt marsh harvest mouse to snowy plovers and a host of fish species.

Coordinated efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been proceeding, in fits and starts, for three decades. In 1983 efforts accelerated when Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission began working together to stem sprawl and pollution. For years the attempt seemed akin to turning back the bay's tides: According to The Washington Post, each year by the mid-1990s, the Chesapeake region was losing land to sprawl in an amount equal to three times the area of Washington, D.C. But last year, in a landmark move, the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia signed an agreement to preserve 11 million acres of open space during the next decade, and to begin restoring the Chesapeake ecosystem.

The costs, however, are even more daunting than the projected cost of restoring the Everglades. Calling it "the absolute minimum required," William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that the effort would cost $8.5 billion over the next 10 years, based on his group's analysis of data, primarily from the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, Baker insists he's optimistic that the environment's big win in the Everglades can be repeated.

Back on the Mississippi, Dan McGuiness concurs. "The connection in all these cases is that we took a major natural system and significantly altered it for our own purposes," he says. "If we really believe healthy ecosystems provide a public benefit, we're going to have to pay a public cost to save them. And maybe the lesson we need to learn is that it would have been much cheaper not to tinker with them in the first place."

Jon R. Luoma wrote about red knots in the May-June issue of Audubon.

 


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© 2001  NASI

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