$2 Billion Plan to Restore Everglades Stuck in Congressional Limbo

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The plan aims to reverse much of the 20th-century draining of the Everglades.

In the 20th century the U.S. Army Corps of Engineersdrained much of Florida's Everglades to prepare the wetlands for development. At the dawn of the 21st century, Congress directed the corps to reverse much of that work and restore the Everglades to a more natural condition.

It's proving to be a very slow process.

Last week, the corps approved a central element of the restoration plan: a $2 billion series of engineering projects designed to collect water around Lake Okeechobee, in the center of the Everglades, and channel it south into the rest of the wetlands. The corps had hoped this Central Everglades Planning Project would be approved and funded by Congress quickly.

But Congress is operating on its own schedule. On May 22—the day before the corps took action—the Senate passed and sent to President Obama a bill funding water projects nationwide. Although it includes some money for the Everglades, it was passed before the Central Everglades Planning Project was finalized.

Now it could take years before Congress passes another water bill—it's been seven years since the last one—and projects that are critical to the restoration of Florida's famous swamplands could face long delays.

Proponents of restoration argue that more urgency is needed. Dawn Shirreffs, senior policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation, an advocacy group, hopes the corps's approval of the Central Everglades Planning Project will spark Congress to revisit the issue sooner.

The corps concurs. "We're at a key point for gaining and keeping momentum," says Kim Taplin, its Central Everglades branch chief.

A River of Grass

Florida's coasts were among the first places explored by Europeans in the 1500s, but the newcomers were reluctant to venture far into the seemingly endless, swampy interiors. The vast expanse of subtropical wetlands—the saw grass marshes, mangrove forests, and dense stands of tropical hardwood trees called hammocks—were not fully charted until the 1940s, long after the rest of the East Coast was mapped.

The idea to drain the Everglades was brought up as early as 1837. But it wasn't until the 1930s that engineers began a 40-year effort to build 1,800 miles of canals. That construction, mostly done by the corps, included projects that diverted water from Lake Okeechobee.

Named after a Creek Indian word meaning "big water," Lake Okeechobee was the heart of the Everglades. In the centuries before engineers arrived, the lake would flood its banks and the excess water would follow a gently sloping grade south in what is called a sheet flow.

This created a 60-mile-wide "river of grass" that became the iconic image of the Everglades.

But unpredictable flooding wasn't good for development. Lake Okeechobee was dammed in the 1930s, and canals were built to direct excess water to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

Land speculation came in waves, with developers putting ads in Northern newspapers touting South Florida's warm temperatures during the winter months. Buyers purchased swampy lots sight unseen.

Depleted Aquifers

The population in Florida, much of it concentrated in the south, swelled from two million before World War II to six million in 1965. The state prepared more new lots for homes in the 1960s than the rest of the country combined.

The draining worked too well. In dry years no water at all flowed south to the Everglades and the aquifers it replenishes. This includes the 4,000-square-mile Biscayne Aquifer, which serves as the main water source for much of South Florida.

As populations swelled and the Everglades diminished, salt water seeped into depleted aquifers. In the 1970s, after an especially dry year showed how precarious the water situation had become, Florida governor Reubin Askew said that the southern part of the state could become "the world's first and only desert which gets 60 inches of annual rainfall."

A 30-Year Plan

The fight to save the Everglades was already well under way by then.Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an activist and journalist, wrote in 1947 that the region was in its "11th hour." Douglas identified the wetlands as a unique place worth saving, not a wasteland to be paved over.

The activism of Douglas and others slowed development and allowed the creation of Everglades National Park, but the depletion of wetlands continued. One of every three Floridians relies on the Everglades for water, yet the wetlands today are half the size they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and they continue to dry up.

Concern has been growing. In the 1990s local residents, farmers, environmentalists, and people from hotels and other businesses involved in tourism banded together to help persuade Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to act.

Written By: Jackie Snow
continue to source article at news.nationalgeographic.com

1 COMMENT

  1. No mention of the sugar cane industry; it wreaked havoc on the environment too. Purportedly, one plant is now ‘eco-friendly’. Perplexing that tourism is not a strong enough persuasion to expedite restoration. Everglades are hugely famous. One of those ‘you can’t put a dollar price on its importance’.

    Timing is everything – but this is a serious flaw per government funding. Long awaited, serious issues get shelved for an “issue du jour’? Ludicrous, yet I suppose that’s just the nature of politics.

    not taking value away from nationwide water projects

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