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Can the River of Grass Be Restored?

BY Michel D. Sallah
by Michel D. Sallah on 10/9/00.

After a morning rain, the sun breaks through the clouds and shines down on the sea of grass in a sight so tranquil that only the wading birds break the silence.

The drops on the leaves sparkle like jewels as the boat comes to a bend in the waterway, and then suddenly the quiet is shattered by diesel-powered cranes rising over the tops of the saw grass.

The big machines are already digging for limestone in a quarry on the northeast edge of the Everglades.

Just south of the excavation, tractors are plowing over muck and trees to make room for 100 new luxury homes. "We're losing acres everyday," says tour guide Dennis Burke.

For centuries, it was an intricately woven wilderness, one of the world's great natural wonders. But decades of draining the "River of Grass" for development and farming have taken a fatal toll.

To help save what's left, a rare $ 7.8 billion plan was approved by the U.S. Senate at the end of September after years of lobbying and bickering. The measure could be approved by the House before it adjourns.

The 20-year project would be the largest ecosystem recovery project on Earth. It will not be easy.

Once covering 15,000 square miles, the Everglades have been cut in half since the 1930s and are shrinking by up to 5 acres every day.

"We're past the 11th hour," said environmentalist Stuart Strahl. "It's our most endangered natural system."

More than 95 percent of the elegant wading birds that once flourished here are gone, and other animals are on the verge of extinction.

The area remains the most important breeding ground for the wading birds of North America, but their habitats are now seriously threatened.

For the 6 million people of south Florida, one of the fastest-growing areas of the nation, the area is the source of their drinking water.

So if the plan works, it could be an American success story. Failure will come at a high price, to the Everglades and to people.

Restoring the Everglades is also about history. About one of the most destructive land-management programs in the nation, started by the Army Corps of Engineers more than 50 years ago to open Florida to the rest of America.

Starting in the late 1940s, more than 1,400 miles of canals and levees were carved out of the fragile wetlands. The natural flow of water was redirected through a system of dikes and pipes to the sea.

In all, more than 3 million acres were drained to allow farming and houses. Land once teeming with freshwater and wildlife was left parched and scarred, while other areas were flooded, wiping out habitats of the best-known animals of the Everglades, the alligators.

"They screwed it up," says L. Cason Brown, a former assistant Palm Beach County property appraiser. "The corps had absolutely no idea what it was doing. It was one big mistake after another."

In pristine days

To understand the dramatic changes in the glades and the battle to preserve what's left, scientists say it's important to understand how the Everglades looked before the destruction of the last half-century.

It was once a magnificent sheet of shallow water and saw grass 300 miles long and 50 miles wide that coursed slowly southward from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay near Miami..

The freshwater -- mostly from rains -- was always meandering around tree hammocks and dark and lonely forests until it spilled into the bay. More than 2 million wading birds clustered in rookeries. The area was roamed by panthers, fox, deer and alligators.

"Mystical and strange," is how it was described by a federal biologist in 1938.

In 1947, the late author and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote "River of Grass," dispelling a popular notion that the glades were just worthless swamp to be drained.

She described the natural beauty and the great confluence of sunlight, water and sounds.

"The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and water, shining and slow-moving below," she wrote.

Long before water problems began in Florida, she railed against poor land management and the ill-planned creations of canals, which had started two decades earlier on a small scale.

That same year, after intense lobbying by conservationists, President Truman led the dedication of Everglades National Park, 1.5 million acres at the southern end of the ecosystem.

But, the following year, the corps initiated the drainage project that would change south Florida forever.

Thousands of people were employed, digging canals eastward to divert 2 billion gallons a day to the ocean instead of allowing it to trickle south.

Instead of the water flowing on its own, 16 diesel pumps, including two of the world's largest, were now moving the water.

By the 1960s, the last of the levees was installed, and the natural flow of the Everglades was irretrievably gone. New cities like Pembroke Pines, Weston and Wellington sprang up on land once underwater.

Symbol of conquest

In time, the Everglades became an American symbol of man's conquest over nature. "The swamps are drained," proclaimed a newspaper advertisement in 1955 touting Florida real estate.

By the same decade, the wading birds were dying off, one of the first signs of a system gone awry.

A state report estimated that the population of wood storks and anhinga and other such birds dropped from 2.5 million in the early part of the century to about 200,000.

In 1984, the state of Florida said that about half of the Everglades was gone, diced and drained and set aside for urban growth.

The once natural water flow was now reduced to ill-timed "discharges" through a levee system manned at a "command center" in West Palm Beach.

Alligator nests were routinely flooded by the discharges, while at the same time, bird habitats were parched.

"What the people never learned was that you can't replicate nature," says Glenn Spencer, a Washington environmental-policy analyst. "You can't just turn water on and off and expect nature to respond favorably."

Beyond aesthetics, state officials discovered a far bigger problem by the
1980s: The drinking water of south Florida was diminishing.

Most of the freshwater for the region comes from a gargantuan aquifer directly under the Everglades.

Because the Everglades act like a sponge, allowing the freshwater to trickle through the top layers and settle in the massive cauldron, there was always enough pressure to keep the seawater around Florida from seeping in.

Now, that's not the case. Several freshwater wells have been shut down because of salinity, and others are in danger.

With south Florida's population expected to reach 7.8 million by 2010, drinking water was suddenly a priority.

State of Florida sued

Something had to be done, say federal officials. Tired of the farm pollution flowing into Everglades National Park, the U.S. government sued the state of Florida in 1988, saying officials weren't even enforcing their own clean-water laws.

The next year, a team of scientists, buoyed by the federal government's concerns, met in Key Largo.

The formation of the Everglades Coalition was the first step toward embarking on one of the most explosive public-policy campaigns in Florida's history.

Over the next decade, there would be studies, negotiations, court battles, and bickering among state and federal agencies and two native American tribes over the way the Everglades should be restored.

Fingers were pointing in all directions over the cause of the Everglades' decline.

After long and passionate hearings, state lawmakers passed the Everglades Forever Act in 1994, setting strict clean-water deadlines and for the first time requiring sugar growers to pay part of the cleanup tab.

After several years of debate, the Everglades restoration plan was finally made public in 1999. The thrust of the plan: restoring the original water flow, the driving force of the Everglades.

Using a computer model, the plan's architects -- the army corps and the state 's water managers -- wanted to bring back the water flow as it existed at the turn of the century.

The plan calls for a complex and expensive series of close to 70 projects, including filling in canals and removing levees that were dug by the corps of engineers.

It also would mean putting in marshes to act as filters to clean the phosphorous as it flows from the farms.

Instead of pumping water to the ocean, 2 billion to 6 billion gallons of freshwater a day would be trapped and stored in reservoirs and 333 underground "bubbles," or storage wells.

During the dry season between October and March, the water would be pumped from the bubbles into the parched areas of the Everglades and to south Florida's biggest cities.

But there were more snags. The National Park Service objected to the plan, saying it was sending too much water to the cities and not enough to the Everglades.

"The question was: Was this all about water so that Florida could grow, or was it about saving the Everglades?" says Brown.

The last hurdle for the Everglades plan didn't come from scientists or government bean counters. It came from Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

A member of the environment and public works committee overseeing the plan, the senator would make several demands, much to the dismay of Florida lawmakers.

One of his main concerns: that the water be for the Everglades, not to fuel more sprawl in Florida. "I made it clear the taxpayers of the United States were not going to pay for Florida's [urban] growth and that had better be for the Everglades," he said.

As a result of Voinovich's objections and similar ones from another Ohio legislator, Rep. Ralph Regula, major changes were made in the draft, including an 11th-hour plan to bring more water to the Everglades by trapping storm water in central Florida and piping it south.

"There were times when he [Mr. Voinovich] was a sole voice of reason," said Patrick Burns, director of environmental policy for Citizens for a Sound

Now, before each project can begin, including the controversial plan to sink "bubble" aquifers in the ground, tests have to be performed to show that the technology will work, Voinovich says.

"I have always believed in the concept of saving the Everglades," he says. "But the plan was rushed to the Congress to force its consideration," without many of the details and analysis "that a feasibility study should include."

No guarantees

There is no guarantee the $ 7.8 billion plan will succeed, but Florida officials say it's the best strategy to try to save the ecosystem. It may take 10 years to see results.

"We're using the best knowledge that we have from everything we know," says Thomas Teets, project manager. "We believe it will work, otherwise we wouldn't be going forward with this."

So far, some marshes have been planted on the edge of the farms in Palm Beach County to stop phosphorous from seeping into the glades. And so far, the marshes are working.

But some critics say the plan is a high-tech gamble that could fail.

Burns, whose organization opposes the plan as written, says it should be done on a slower, more incremental basis.

To even call it a restoration is "a fraud," he says. "You've already destroyed half of the Everglades. Forget about calling it a restoration."

He questioned the use of the 333 underground storage aquifers, saying the water could be tainted with salt water and, worse, sewer water that some Florida cities inject deep into the ground.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Everglades is the lesson they teach to future generations, says Brown. "Maybe we'll think as a society what we did," he says, "and what we lost."

The Block News Alliance is a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, both Block newspapers. Michael D.Sallah is a national affairs writer for The Blade.