Rescue plan for Everglades

The Everglades, an environmentally threatened region that serves as a vital source of drinking water for south Florida, is the subject of an ambitious restoration plan.

Florida Gov. Bob Graham has unveiled a proposal that, if implemented, could within 17 years make the Everglades look more like it did in 1900.

The Everglades is a huge, delicate ecosystem that relies on the flow of water from as far north as Orlando, through Lake Okeechobee, across a broad plain that stretches nearly from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and into the Florida gulf.

A change in any part of the system affects the quality of the environment in all of the rest, and from the end of the last century until the early 1970s, Florida's policy was to drain and fill as much of that land as possible.

The Everglades has shrunk by more than 50 percent of its original size as housing and agricultural development have muscled in on its borders, environmentalists say. A series of man-made canals and dikes stop the natural flow of water, making the Everglades more susceptible to droughts and floods that have driven out wildlife and destroyed the mucky soil that makes the Everglades what it is.

As a result, the environment of the entire south-central part of Florida has been altered. Tens of thousands of birds have disappeared from the Kissimmee River Basin. Lake Okeechobee, the main source of drinking water for south Florida, nearly dried up in 1981. The Everglades has been ravaged by fire and flood, and the once-abundant marine life in Florida Bay has been decimated because the salinity of the water now fluctuates so widely.

Governor Graham's seven-point plan would:

1. Reestablish the natural flow of the Kissimmee River, which was turned into a straight channel by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s to provide flood protection for pastureland in the central part of the state. That channel has drained wetlands in central Florida that feed Lake Okeechobee. It could cost between $32 million and $82 million to restore the river, and Congress must authorize the work, state and federal officials have said.

2. Restore to Everglades-like condition some 60,000 acres in central Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee, that have been drained. The state will spend $11 million to buy the land and another $6.3 million to restore its water flow.

3. Manage the deer herd in the water conservation area so that it can survive flood conditions. The state was forced to send hunters into the area last summer to kill deer because flooding had destroyed their food supply.

4. Make improvements to Alligator Alley, the road that crosses the Everglades from Ft. Lauderdale on the east coast to Naples on the gulf coast. Alterations in the road would be designed to allow more water to follow its natural north-to-south flow. Alligator Alley is scheduled to be upgraded to interstate standards to become part of I-75. When that happens, the governor wants more bridges built, especially along its eastern section, to replace impermeable dikes.

5. Restore Everglades National Park by buying 50,000 adjoining acres that will help preserve the watershed that feeds the park. That land would be purchased for about $17.2 million under state endangered land and rivers programs, and the elaborate network of canals on it would be altered to create a sheet flow of water into the park.

6. Purchase more of the natural habitat of the Florida panther, an endangered species of which about 20 are known to be left in the wild. The state will urge the federal government to purchase more land for the Big Cypress National Preserve, and the state will purchase another 34,000 acres of land for $15 million.

7. The governor will establish a resource planning management committee to study the entire Everglades area and make proposals for additional improvements.

Overcoming some 83 years of destruction and environmental manipulation is expected to cost more than $100 million, require the purchase of 250,000 acres, and rely on the coordination of several federal, state, and local agencies.

Ken Woodburn, the governor's environmental policy coordinator, says Graham will ask the federal government to appoint a coordinator for the project because the work will involve so many federal and state agencies.

''We want to bring the Everglades under one program, rather than dealing with it as isolated crises,'' Mr. Woodburn says. ''The governor wants the Everglades to look more like (it) did in 1900 by the year 2000.''

Don Miller, executive director of the Everglades Protection Association, says enough planning has been done during the past five years to start work immediately on restoring the Everglades.

''Plans have been designed and reviewed,'' he says. ''It wouldn't take but a few months to begin something if the money and authorization were there.''

He says individual efforts to protect deer and panther are not needed if the work is coordinated to restore the Everglades as a whole.

''Wildlife management should not be directed to any one species,'' he says. ''There should be a total plan to bring back the environmental balance of the area, and then nature will restore the species that should be there.''

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