Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Delicate balance in the Everglades


OUR OPINION: Rainy-season water diversion leaves vital water system parched

If only it were this easy.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously last week to push state and federal agencies to adopt a high-water emergency policy to protect plants and animals in the central Everglades.

It’s a commendable stance, but difficult to put into action because, at the present time, the entire Everglades system, stretching from Orlando to Florida Bay, is one giant restoration project in various stages of construction — from stuck in neutral to half-completed.

The FWC acknowledged this, agreeing to cooperate with other state and federal agencies on restoration even as it pushes to protect the central Everglades. The tract that concerns the FWC is a vast conservation area lying between I-75 and the Tamiami Trail that’s home to the endangered Florida panther and other creatures that must crowd together on tree islands and levees when the water level is high during the summer rainy season. Ideally, the water in the central Everglades would have an average depth of 2 feet during the wet season to almost ground level during the dry season. This is what the FWC is advocating.

But the central Glades is under pressure from other forces located north and south of the area. When summer rains swell Lake Okeechobee to the north, the U.S. Corps of Engineers must release water to keep the lake from overflowing the creaky earthen Herbert Hoover Dike, and sending that water south threatens to further inundate the central Glades. The water is also contaminated by urban and agricultural runoff from the north.

Ideally, the water would be shunted to storage areas to be cleansed before being sent anywhere. But there aren’t yet enough completed reservoirs with the capacity to contain all the lake’s spillover. So instead, much of the water is diverted east and west, wreaking havoc on coastal estuaries on both sides of the state and leaving Everglades National Park on the parched side.

Sending more water south of the Tamiami Trail to prevent flooding in the central Glades and simultaneously relieve the thirsty park and Florida Bay poses flooding threats to urban areas and contamination of the drinking-water supply. A series of construction projects aimed at restoring the historic sheet flow from the water conservation areas south into the national park will reduce flood threats in the central Everglades eventually, but they won’t be completed before 2014 and yet another rainy summer.

Sound complicated? Yes, everything about fixing what man has wrought over the past 75 years in the vast River of Grass is intricate, expensive and often controversial. But this summer saw some forward movement. Spurred by public outrage over the lake’s spillover contaminating the St. Lucie Basin on the east coast, the state committed $40 million to a restoration project to help clean water in the basin. And another $90 million of state money is being allocated over three years to help raise the Tamiami Trail to allow more water to flow into the park. The U.S. Corps is continuing to shore up the dike.

Federal and state officials are also working on the Central Everglades Planning Project, a $1.8-billion plan to store and clean more water to protect the ecosystem in the conservation area. Still, more must be done to store and clean water north of Lake Okeechobee to control the rainy season’s disastrous chain reaction that pollutes precious estuaries every year and leaves Everglades National Park parched while so much needed water is diverted elsewhere.

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