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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Everglades Restoration

Air Date: Week of

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Guest host Pippin Ross takes a look at the early planning for the congressionally mandated restoration of the Florida Everglades. The linchpin of the plan is a massive series of underground water storage tanks.



ROSS: The only way to really see Florida's Everglades is aboard an airboat. These flat bottomed sardine cans slice through naturally formed canals, flanked by waving sawgrass, and peppered with little islands. There's no place like it in the world.


ROSS: The Everglades used to function as a nearly perfect system to store, filter and distribute water throughout South Florida. It was a system able to readily adjust to the region's dry and wet seasons. But, today's Everglades are nothing like the place Miccosukee Tribal Elder, Buffalo Turtle, says he grew up in.

TURTLE: If you're going to find a fish, you will find them. Because you can look down, and you can see the bottom. The water is very clean. And all those that birds used to be around. It's gone. Everything, it changed so quickly. Just seems like it's overnight.

ROSS: Well, not quite overnight. The reshaping of the Everglades began in the late fifties. The architect was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. He was Florida's Governor at the time. And his plan was to drain the four million acre swamp.


MAN: Foot by foot, mile by mile, the work went on. Drilling, blasting, digging, bite by bite. Five to eight cubic yards per mouthful. Slowly, persistently, gouging the bottom to build up the top.

ROSS: This archival film, Waters of Destiny, documents the efforts to dry up the Everglades. The Army Corps of Engineers built 1,800 miles of levies and canals to keep new housing developments and farmland from being flooded. The water was diverted to people and crops.

MAN: Water that once ran wild, water that ruined the rich terrain, water that took lives and land, put disaster in the headlines, and death upon the soil. Now, it just waits there, calm, peaceful, ready to do the bidding of man and his machine.

ROSS: It was a huge engineering success. But it left the Everglades crisscrossed with roads and canals, and no longer able to serve as the region's giant water filter. Terry Rice used to command the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida.

RICE: You can look at the EPA records. They republish a report every two years on water bodies in Florida. Almost all of them are degrading in water quality, year by year. People don't understand that. People don't know that. I mean, we know it because that's our job to know it.

ROSS: The decline of the Everglades so upset the Miccosukee Tribe, it filed suit after suit, blaming the state of Florida for the deteriorating water quality. Tribal chairman, Billy Cypress.

CYPRESS: I make it short and simple. And I hope it's sweet. And I hope people will listen, think about it twice: commitment. Get it going. And I hope we have enough attorneys that will sue and sue and sue and sue until we get it corrected.

ROSS: So, the Miccosukees sued. Environmental groups lobbied, and eventually, Congress passed what's called "The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan." With an eight billion dollar price tag, it's the biggest government funded environmental project in history. But, Army Corps of Engineers, Colonel Terry Rice, now an advisor to the Miccosukee Tribe, says "restoration" is a bit of a misnomer.

RICE: You can never make this system what it used to be. So, you have to figure out, how can you go back and make the system function as naturally as you can? And the only way you can do that is by engineering a system that will allow that to happen.

ROSS: One step is to undo some of what was done in the '50s, like taking out canals, tearing up roads, and letting rains once again flood the land. The goal is to recreate a hundred mile path of undisturbed water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys. But, the deconstruction project will take decades. And, it doesn't include the thousands of acres of Everglades already destroyed, or now inhabited by people and farms.

ZEBUTH: There is a saying that there are three things wrong with the Everglades' system. We need more storage. We need more storage. And we need more storage. Because that is what we have primarily destroyed.

ROSS: Herb Zebuth is a water specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He stands at the shore of Lake Okeechobee. This lake used to feed tons of fresh water into the ecosystem. And when it was healthy, the Everglades acted like a sponge, mopping up the lake's overflow in the rainy season and holding water during the dry season.

But, right now, the Everglades can't soak up the overflow. When the rains come and the lake floods, the Glades drown in polluted runoff. And the water it can no longer hold flows out to sea. In the dry season, Lake Okeechobee water goes to people and farms, and the Everglades goes dry.

ZEBUTH: Now, because we drained off half of the Everglades, and we've lowered our water table so a cheap development could come in, we are dependent more and more and more on Lake Okeechobee as a water supply when, naturally, it didn't have to meet those needs. And that's why we're finding that, more and more often, we're falling short.

ROSS: The quick fix is a two billion dollar project to install more than 300 deep wells near Lake Okeechobee to capture and store water during the rainy season and send most of it to the Everglades during the dry season. It's a controversial idea. But, Zebuth says, the only other option is to build massive above-ground reservoirs, flooding now valuable land.

ZEBUTH: So, putting it underground eliminates those pressures. I mean, you don't have to scrounge around trying to find land that's too politically hot to buy. Plus, you won't lose some of that water through evaporation, which is a great part of our loss here in Florida.

ROSS: Deep well technology is used in other parts of the country. But, the one plan for the Everglades is 20 times the size of the largest existing system. And, some South Floridians worry that too many hopes are being hung on a technology that's never operated at such a massive scale.

Scientists, appointed by Congress to inspect the restoration project, agree the wells are still too experimental to play such a critical role in restoring the ecosystem. Meanwhile, environmental activists like Alan Fargo of Florida's Sierra Club worry about the long-term effects.

FARGO: I believe the technologies like aquifer storage and recovery are going to come back to haunt us, and could render parts of South Florida uninhabitable. And for the people who live in areas effected by contaminated water, we're talking about a new misery quotient for life in Florida.

ROSS: To avoid contaminating the aquifer, officials say water will be filtered before it's pumped into the ground. But even that precaution isn't fail-safe. William Logan is on the Water Science and Technology Board of The National Research Council, and has worked on pilot projects underway in Florida. He says when you store water underground in oxygen depleted environments, you can change its composition. And when you bring that water back to the surface, it may return with some unwanted chemicals.

LOGAN: Whether we're talking about mercury, or whether we're talking about arsenic or heavy metals, it's something that has to be tested. I think that is the argument that many people would be making here.

ROSS: Even proponents of the storage wells admit there are risks. But, Broward County Water Management District Director Roy Reynolds, says if the deep well system can restore water flow to the Everglades, it'll be the environmental coup of the century.

REYNOLDS: But there are some major questions, major questions about what may happen when we put water under the ground on such a large scale. That's why we need to move forward rapidly with the pilot projects, especially the pilot projects around Lake Okeechobee.


ROSS: Reynolds is attending a strategy session of the South Florida Water Management Board. Representatives from some 500 divergent groups are here trying to reach consensus on a 68-part plan to revive the Everglades quickly. The group is made up of natural adversaries: the sugar industry, trying to hold on to its acreage; developers, who want more land; and, environmentalists who would like as much of the Everglades restored as possible. Reynolds says, the money is available. The crisis is real. And, dickering is simply no longer an option.

REYNOLDS: We've never all come together in agreeing 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. But I think we all realize that if we don't get it right, we're all going to suffer. If it goes wrong for one side, it's likely to go wrong for all of us. And there's a lot of folks sitting around this table that recognize that.

ROSS: Roy Rogers is senior vice president of the Arvida Corporation, one of Florida's biggest developers. He's standing at the edge of a vast bird-filled swamp, smack dab in the middle of an upscale housing development.

ROGERS: Some people would look at this, and think it's an unmade bed. It just doesn't look right. It's not tailored.

ROSS: Under pressure from environmental groups, The Arvida Corporation set aside thousands of acres of wetlands inside its 10,000 acre development that abuts the Everglades. Rogers says it turns out the wetlands improve the development's water supply, and attract wildlife. In the end, he says, Everglades preservation is a smart business policy.

ROGERS: The doomsday situation is that we don't have enough water, that we kill the Everglades, that we spoil the estuary system that rings our waters, that the coral reefs snuff out, that it's a loathsome place for tourists to come to. The economy takes a tubing. And no one wants to live here because it's a place of horror. You've taken a paradise and turned it into a horror. We can't allow that to happen.

ROSS: The entire Everglades restoration project could take as many as 30 years to complete. By that time, Florida's population, and the demands on the state's water supply, is expected to double.

[MUSIC: TUU "Pan American" ONE THOUSAND YEARS (WaveForm-2001)]




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