Game-changer in the Everglades

Large land sale throws ecosystem-restoration plans cheerfully upside down.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images/File
‘River of Grass’: A black vulture takes flight in the Florida Everglades National Park. A just-announced major land sale is likely to considerably ease the complexity of a $10 billion project to restore this extensive ecosystem. Farming and pollution have hurt the Glades.

Going back to the drawing board can seem like an exercise in frustration.

But people working to restore Florida’s legendary Everglades – by many accounts one of the most ambitious ecological overhauls ever attempted – are headed to the drafting table with extra spring in their steps. Last week, the US Sugar Corp. and the state of Florida announced that they had agreed to a statement of principles that would shut down the sugar company’s operation. In exchange, the state will buy the company’s nearly 188,000 acres of land, as well as its equipment, rail lines, and sugar mills. Negotiations over the $1.75 billion sale are expected to conclude by September.

US Sugar’s holdings cradle much of the eastern and southern shores of Lake Okeechobee and are expected to play an important role in the restoration project.

“I’ve been working on Everglades restoration for a lot of years; this is really a quantum leap forward,” says Kimberly Taplin, the senior US Army Corps of Engineers official working with the South Florida Water Management District on the project. “The opportunities and possibilities this opens up for us are huge.”

(Editor’s note: The following paragraph did not appear in earlier versions of this story.) “This is not a silver bullet,” cautions Jeff Danter, who
heads The Nature Conservancy’s Florida headquarters. Given the history of human intervention, Everglades restoration will be a long hard slog, he says. And the land deal itself leaves “a lot of details to work out, and there will be battles over those details.” These include likely land swaps
with another sugar company, Florida Crystal, as well as efforts to clean up US Sugar’s land – especially any phosphates (fertilizer) or pesticides in the soil. Still, he agrees that the deal represents a remarkable opportunity to inject new life into the Everglades restoration effort.

Over its 5,000-year history, the Ever­glades has come to represent an enormous natural freshwater holding tank for southern Florida, as well as a biologically rich mosaic of fresh- and saltwater ecosystems. Once spanning some 3 million acres, the vast peatland – with its saw-grass plains, tree islands, wet prairies, and ponds – is now about half its original size. Nearly 70 of its plant and animal species are listed as endangered.

Farming and flood control have drastically changed the way water flows – critical to the area’s unique characteristics. And the water is spiked with pollutants from farming and southern Florida’s rapid growth.

For a decade, federal, state, and regional agencies have worked to implement a 30-year program aimed at restoring more natural water flows to the area. And while a handful of individual projects – themselves works in progress – show promising results, the program has lost momentum, some analysts say. Among the hang-ups: The federal government has not lived up to its funding commitments. Meanwhile, the price tag has risen from a projected $8 billion in 1999 to an estimated $10.9 billion (in 2004 dollars).

Little wonder, then, that last week’s announcement struck like a fresh gust of wind hitting limp sails. This isn’t the first time the idea of a major land purchase has come up, notes Curtis Richardson, a Duke University ecologist who has spent 15 years working in the Everglades. Even with a successful sale, US Sugar gets another six years to shut down its operations in an orderly manner. Still, he adds, a successful sale would “turn the current plans upside down.”

The Everglades’s original plumbing was fairly simple. During the rainy season, water inched its way into Lake Okeechobee from the north through the Kissimmee River Valley. The lake – a relatively shallow, saucerlike depression – would overflow into the Everglades to the south. The slight tilt of the landscape – losing only about an inch of elevation per mile as it slopes toward Florida Bay – ensured that the overflow would spread over wide swaths of land. Combined with the vegetation (including vast expanses of saw grass eight to 12 feet tall), the amount and timing of the water’s arrival contributed a thick layer of peat beneath the area. The peat acted like a sponge, soaking up water in the wet season and slowly releasing it during the dry season.

But in the past century, farmers and ranchers drained wetlands north of the lake and turned a meandering Kissimmee River into a virtual water chute. Concerns about hurricanes and flooding prompted calls for flood-control structures. The lake, now surrounded by a 30-foot-high dike, is more an engineered flood-control reservoir than a way station for Everglades-bound water. Its major outlets are the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River – both of which dump the water directly into the ocean. And its waters are heavily polluted.

Given competing demands for Ever­glades water from farming, the densely populated coasts, and the Everglades itself, US Sugar’s additional acreage provides “an opportunity to redo the entire Everglades restoration program,” says Jeff Danter, who heads up The Nature Conservancy’s state office in Florida. “It’s not necessarily to restore 187,000 acres of sawgrass, but it creates a lot more flexibility in the system to move water around to meet everybody’s needs.”

Some of the land’s benefits are likely to be indirect, derived through land swaps with other sugar growers in the large agricultural zone south of Lake Okeechobee. Still, planners can foresee fresh approaches to meeting water-flow and water-quality requirements.

For instance, original plans called for a 30,000-acre storage reservoir at the southern end of the agricultural zone, miles from the lake. Special protected marshlands set up to treat the water naturally would intercept the water along the way to the reservoir, says Ms. Taplin of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Now, she can envision moving the storage facility much closer to the lake, and shifting the so-called special-treatment areas to the agricultural zone’s border with the rest of the Everglades. This new layout also could allow the program to avoid drilling 333 wells to store water in aquifers for later recovery – an energy-intensive approach that has never been tried on this scale and one that would have required heavy investments in water purification as well.

Yet for some, moving water around and regulating its flow still falls short of the area’s ecological needs. In some respects, Dr. Richardson says, restoration plans are chasing a poetic “river of grass” vision when the Everglades never were a river of grass, a swamp, or a marsh. Peatlands – and their natural storage capacity – build up and thrive on extremes of water and fire.

“Engineering has a tendency to take out the extremes, and ecological systems live on the extremes,” he says. “The Everglades is a harsh environment that has a yin and a yang,” he continues, “and humans don’t like those things. There are some areas we can save, but it’s going to be tough.”

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