Restoring the Florida Everglades - one river at a time

Cleanup of the St. Lucie River gets a boost with vice president'sannouncement of a $312 million pledge.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Just north of the St. Lucie Inlet in the Indian River is a wide expanse of knee-deep water where swift tides sweep across a river bottom carpeted with sea grass.

It is an unusual and fascinating place created by the workings of wind and tide over hundreds of years.

To weekend sailors, it is a famously bad location to try to drive a yacht. But to marine scientists searching for ways to revive the ecological health of the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers, this underwater pasture offers a perpetual report card on their progress.

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Accessible by canoe, kayak, or long-distance wading, the grass covers 700 acres and has historically provided a vital nursery for all kinds of sea creatures. It's also a feeding ground for trophy-size sport fish, a sanctuary for manatees in deeper areas, and a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet table for sea birds.

For years the survival of the grass has been in question. Scientists warn that if the grass dies, so will the rivers.

Nonetheless, experts and local officials now say they are optimistic that the grass and the rivers will not only survive but eventually thrive again.

While they know it won't happen overnight, a big boost to their efforts came Thursday when Vice President Al Gore announced an increase in funding to restore the natural flow of water through the Florida Everglades.

The announcement by Mr. Gore, which coincides with the start today of the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition in Miami, is a pledge of $312 million to help finance the $7.8 billion, 20-year Everglades restoration project.

"It is going to get better," says Melissa Meeker of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "Every little project that we do will have some improvement on the system, but you are not going to have a short-term turnaround."

The villain threatening the health of the St. Lucie River isn't toxic runoff from an upstream factory or petrochemical plant. Such pollution doesn't exist here. Instead, the "poison" is fresh water pumped from Lake Okeechobee into the river for flood control.

The Everglades restoration project aims to return that flood water to the Everglades rather than dumping it in the St. Lucie.

Over the years, billions of gallons of fresh water have flowed through the river, depositing tons of oozing silt on the river bottom and dramatically altering the clarity and quality of the water. Sometimes the discharges were so large and continuous that they converted the St. Lucie from a brackish and saltwater estuary into a flowing freshwater river.

It doesn't take a degree in marine science to figure out that most plants and animals that thrive in salt water will suffer in fresh.

Some 6 percent of sample fish caught in the rivers are turning up with lesions that scientists suspect may be caused by a fresh-water fungus.

Tests have found 33 different fish species with lesions, says Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society. And further up the St. Lucie, sea grass and oyster beds have all but disappeared, local fisherman say.

THE plight of the St. Lucie and Indian Rivers is a prime illustration of how flood-control efforts initiated more than a half century ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers have disrupted the delicate balance of the entire ecosystem of south Florida. Environmentalists, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas, warned about this at the time, but were largely ignored.

The Corps of Engineers constructed more than 1,500 miles of canals and levies to help drain potential farmland in central Florida and residential land in southeastern Florida. The result was a massive diversion of water away from its natural flow down the center of the state via the wide, shallow "river of grass" known as the Florida Everglades.

Florida Bay at the southern tip of the peninsula and the Florida aquifer (the region's primary source of drinking water) are both starved for fresh water, while billions of gallons are being pumped via canals into rivers like the St. Lucie.

It would take nothing short of a complete reconfiguration of this man-made plumbing system to prevent flood water and other runoff from drowning the St. Lucie. And that's exactly what a task force of local, state, and federal officials has in mind.

The St. Lucie is only a small part of the plan, but the river stands to reap significant benefits from it. In addition, voters in Martin County passed a referendum that will raise as much as $44 million through local sales taxes to help finance their own portion of the St. Lucie cleanup.

As part of the Everglades restoration project, flood-control officials have already pledged to stop dumping lake water into the river. But they say in potential flood emergencies (perhaps three times a century) they may have no alternative when heavy rains threaten to test the levees surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

Although officials attempting to restore the St. Lucie have yet to turn the corner, some locals here in Stuart say after years of working to clean up the river they are finally on the brink of real progress.

"The world right now is more conducive to improvement in this estuary than it has ever been in my lifetime," says Kevin Henderson, a former mayor of Stuart and vice president of an ad hoc river cleanup group called the St. Lucie River Initiative. He adds: "If the future was any brighter, we'd have to wear shades."

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