Mapping the Everglades’ Varied Landscapes

Different constituencies' visions of Everglades restoration may not look all that alike.
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Part 2 of a three-part series. In part 1, we examined the impossibility of truly restoring any habitat to pre-human condition. And in part 3, the buyout of U.S. Sugar provides a different kind of restoration — to a time when big and bold was the hallmark of conservation.

Well before the state of Florida came up with the U.S. Sugar solution to the Everglades, engineers and conservationists in the area had been working on another answer, a complicated, controversial and pricey 30-year map called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It was approved by Congress in 2000 as part of the Water Resources Development Act, and at the time, it was envisioned as a $7.8 billion, 50-50 federal-and-state partnership.

Now, the same conservationists and engineers will spend the next several years working out how the dramatic new land acquisition changes the CERP — and wondering if changes for the better will mean federal support that never arrived for the plan finally will.

The CERP was based on the premise that water from Lake Okeechobee couldn’t be moved south, through an area the public didn’t own. Canals couldn’t hold all the water, there was nowhere to store it, and the water itself needed treatment.

“All that’s changed,” said David Guest, an attorney with Earthjustice. “Unfortunately, people spent an enormous amount of time and study on the CERP. And all those people, I’m sure, must feel to some extent like they were sitting on an easy chair over a trapdoor and the trapdoor got sprung.”

That the premises of the plan are no longer true — “that’s not bad,” Guest said. “That’s wonderful, because all of those were problems that are about to be gone.”

The South Florida Water Management District will now own, after a six-year transition period, much of the “missing link” — land necessary to connect Lake Okeechobee with water conservation areas to the south and, below that, Everglades National Park.

Unfortunately, the soil has subsided in the newly acquired land. Topographically, it now looks less like a flat sheet than a saucer, Army Corps of Engineers expert Stu Appelbaum said. On its own, water won’t naturally flow south as it once did; it will pool in the Everglades Agricultural Area saucer.

Much of the discussion over the next six years will center on how much man-made engineering will be necessary to push the water up and into the land farther south.

“That requires lots of pumps and gizmos and things like that, and that’s what some of the fuss is: People want to see minimal human intervention,” Appelbaum said. “To me, it’s not possible to put the system back to the way it was. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the system. The notion of going from a managed system to a completely unmanaged system is completely unrealistic. We could have a less managed system.”

Guest provides the non-engineering view.

“Engineers view the world as a plumbing problem,” he said. “Their impulse is to build reservoirs and pumping stations and canals and move things through cells and treat the whole thing as something that’s really in their control.”

That’s the attitude — we can control nature — that led us here in the first place. Many Army Corps of Engineers projects these days involve undoing past projects. Guest expects we’ll eventually reach a balance between the two sides. Tom Van Lent, the senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation, supports pumping at the periphery and a natural flow in the heart of the Everglades.

“Natural” in this case, though, means not only holding back the gizmos but also eliminating the dikes and canals built years ago. A subset of the argument will be about where exactly the required man-made aids should go: Do we try to conserve the newly acquired land as well or use it exclusively to help revive the land farther south?

Also at issue will be the most controversial element of the CERP structure, an uncertain technology called “aquifer storage and recovery.” A main goal of the CERP was to help conserve water in wet years for later use during droughts, as opposed to letting that water flush out to the Gulf. Without land to store it above ground, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed creating several hundred deep underground wells where water could be injected and later retrieved.

But the Water Management District conceded that aquifer storage and recovery on this scale had never been applied, and before we could use the technology, we needed to invest considerable time and money testing and developing it.
For engineering insiders, the U.S. Sugar acquisition is a breakthrough in that it will totally reshape the aquifer debate.

“When I try to describe how big it is, it just sounds hyperbolic, like I’m exaggerating,” Van Lent said. “From an engineering perspective, for me, the real importance of this is it allows a shift to a technology I know will work, to a time frame I might live to see.”

Appelbaum, though, isn’t ready to declare aquifer storage and recovery completely obsolete, adding that discussion to the list of compromises that will have to take place.

The CERP had one other, fundamental tension. It technically had two goals: the ecological revival of the Everglades and the management of water resources for economic development and urban sustainability in South Florida.

Little federal money for the plan ever arrived (an oddity, some point out, given that the Florida governor and U.S. president at the time were brothers). Guest suggests this was partly because conservationists complained that the CERP was starting to look more like an economic development project than an environmental conservation one.

It is not, after all, among the federal government’s jobs to ensure a sustainable water supply for the people of Fort Lauderdale.

“But the federal government’s role is very clearly defined as aiding and supporting environmental restoration,” said Ron Tipton, the senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, a citizen-advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of the national parks. “The state has always been a little nebulous; they want it all: They want to restore the Everglades, and they want to build the hell out of South Florida. I think that was Jeb Bush’s view.”

Tipton also attributes the funding falloff to the Bush administration in Washington, which made less of a priority out of the Everglades as Al Gore had during the Clinton administration.

“You didn’t have that kind of leadership coming form anyone high in the Bush administration,” Tipton said. “Dick Cheney could care less. That changed things quite a bit.”

So, too, did Sept. 11, which altered funding priorities overnight a year after the CERP was created.

Tipton thinks federal support for the Everglades could change dramatically under either Barack Obama or John McCain — he’d even like to see the two spar during the campaign over who would support the Everglades more. The U.S. Sugar deal, with fortuitous timing, is scheduled to be completed within 75 days of the original announcement, on the eve of the election.

The best hope for renewed federal funding, though, comes from the state itself.

“That’s a big signal to the federal government that the state is stepping up at a level never seen before on this project,” Tipton said. “Congress looks very carefully at what the state is doing, how much it’s involved, how much leadership, and they measure that.”

It will be a lot easier now for lobbyists to ask politicians in Washington why they aren’t doing their part, too.

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