South Florida’s economy is intrinsically linked to the region’s environment. Our tourist-luring beaches, two national parks — Biscayne and Everglades — divers’ much-loved coral reefs, scenic rivers — the Oleta in Miami-Dade County, the Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, for instance — are economic as well ecological assets that we must protect and preserve. They not only draw visitors by the millions but in some instances they also provide our drinking water, a commodity that’s getting more precious in an increasingly parched world.
Our stewardship of these assets, which are always under threat from continuing development and various sources of pollution, is complicated further by the reality of rising seas caused by climate change. No state is more vulnerable than Florida to the rising sea level.
Some local governments in South Florida have begun addressing rising seas through regional efforts to seek practical ways to protect vulnerable coastal communities and drinking-water sources.
While the local leadership’s recognition of global warming’s threat is encouraging, our optimism is tempered by the lack of state leadership on this very serious issue. Tallahassee needs to join the 21st century in recognizing global warming for the genuine peril that it is to Florida’s populous coasts.
Inland, advancement of CERP, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a joint state-federal project to restore the vast swamp’s original water flow southward from Orlando to Florida Bay, remains a top goal in 2014. This ambitious, expensive plan has had its ups and downs over the years. Federal lawsuits by various stakeholders challenging parts of the plan and funding miscues — mostly from the feds courtesy of a balky Congress — have taken their toll on what was originally a 20-year restoration plan.
But recent actions by both state and federal governments bode well for CERP’s future. State and federal officials are firming up a $1.8-billion plan to store and clean more water in the vast Everglades conservation area between I-75 and the Tamiami Trail, which will ultimately deliver more clean water to thirsty Everglades National Park. The state has committed $40 million to clean up water in the St. Lucie River Basin, which, along with the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast, suffers grievous damage annually from polluted water diverted from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding each summer.
The state also will spend $90 million over three years to raise more of the Tamiami Trail to increase water flow through the park and into Florida Bay. One mile has already been raised, a success story for long-time advocates of elevation to eradicate the barrier the Trail has long been to the “River of Grass” flowing southward unimpeded.
Another potential environmental threat is population growth. Florida will soon surpass New York as the third-most populous state. More people equals more development, especially along our coasts. Rather than easing growth-development rules, as the Republican leadership in Tallahassee has been doing in recent years, the state should prepare for more residents with smart-growth plans that discourage sprawl on undeveloped land and direct redevelopment in established urban areas, concentrating demand for expanding roads and schools and increasing other public services. We must grow wisely, without endangering our precious natural resources.