Reviving Florida's Fragile 'River of Grass'

The world's biggest environmental rehab project - saving the Everglades - begins in earnest

Imagine the audacity of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

In 1947 she wrote an entire book about the seemingly endless expanse of mosquito-infested muck and weeds known as the Florida Everglades. Where most developers, politicians, and South Floridians saw a worthless swamp, she saw a "River of Grass."

Today her book is not only a classic of environmental literature, it also reads like a blueprint for what conservationists are hailing as the most extensive environmental restoration project ever undertaken anywhere in the world.

After decades of misguided attempts to drain and fill in the massive wetland, a team of scientists, engineers, environmentalists, farmers, urban planners, and politicians has come to the same conclusion reached by Mrs. Douglas more than a half century ago. The Everglades is a vital component of south Florida, affecting everything from the quantity and quality of drinking water to the multibillion-dollar tourist industry.

Now, after years of study and debate, the full-scale restoration campaign is ramping up to reverse years of man-made abuse. The effort, which will extend well into the next century, is expected to cost from $3 billion to $5 billion.

But the entire river of grass won't be restored. Fifty percent of it is gone, under suburban houses and fields of sugar cane. It may be possible, however, to bring back enough of the surviving ecosystem to reestablish a critical natural balance, or what Douglas called "one vast, unified harmonious whole."

"It is basically restoring the integrity of the ecosystem on a regional scale," says Tom Sadler of the National Audubon Society. "It is just a gargantuan effort."

The plan seeks to reverse the detrimental effects of a system of 1,400 miles of canals and levees built in the 1950s and 1960s by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The canals were built to prevent floods and create dry land for farming. They draw off 40 percent of the fresh water that once flowed through the Everglades. Instead, it goes straight to the ocean. Prior to the canals, all that water - one to two feet deep - slid through 100 miles of native saw grass from Lake Okeechobee southward to Florida Bay. It took more than a year for the water to reach the bay, in the process providing a habitat for alligators, fish, and other wildlife. At the bay it mixed with saltwater over acres of sea grass, providing a productive nursery for fish and shrimp.

But the canal system has contributed to a 95 percent drop in the population of wading birds from a century ago. Today, more than 50 species of Everglades plants and animals are threatened or endangered, including the Florida panther, wood stork, and snail kite.

The huge volume of slow-moving water in the Everglades also once recharged the Biscayne Aquifer, the massive slab of porous rock that underlies much of the populated section of southeast Florida. Less water in the river of grass has meant less water for Miami. As a result, saltwater from the sea now intrudes into the aquifer, threatening the region's main water supply.

The canals made it possible for large-scale farming to take place in the region immediately south of Lake Okeechobee. Nearly 700,000 acres are now planted with sugar cane. But fertilizer runoff from those fields threatens to change the face of the Everglades, nourishing phosphorous-loving plants like cattails, which are crowding out acre upon acre of native saw grass.

To reverse all that, officials hope to restore as much of the total flow of clean water as possible. The plan is to channel tainted agricultural runoff through huge filtration marshes designed to draw the fertilizer out of the water before it is discharged into the river of grass.

Officials also seek to buy large tracts of land to prevent further encroachment.

And the Corps of Engineers is studying an ambitious plan to reconfigure the system of canals to complement the natural flow of water, rather than disrupt it. The task would involve work on an open-air plumbing system roughly the size of Maryland.

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