In his Jan. 15, Other Views article, More freshwater should be the top priority, Neal McAliley argues that Everglades restoration is being hampered by “outdated restoration choices made 20 years ago.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
McAliley’s belief is based on the notion that we can improve the ecosystem by increasing water flowing into the Everglades, even if that water is polluted. We agree that the Everglades needs more water, but certainly not water polluted with excess phosphorus.
The science is clear. Phosphorus pollution in the Everglades causes irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Scientists have shown that concentrations of phosphorus above 10 parts per billion (ppb) begin a cascade of events that collapses the Everglades food web, harms fisheries and destroys habitat for everything from alligators to wading birds. It also contributes to overgrowth of cattail plants that destroy the natural Everglades environment.
South Florida Water Management District estimates show that the area of cattail stemming from past pollution in Water Conservation Area-3A is currently over 80,000 acres and has expanded more than 30,000 acres since 1995 — an area larger than the city of Fort Lauderdale. While substantial progress has been made to reduce phosphorus levels entering the central Everglades, largely a result of taxpayer-funded Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), we have yet to achieve protective levels.
McAliley describes current phosphorus concentrations of 18 ppb as being clean enough for moving more water south. He is incorrect and failed to mention that the current average of water flowing from all STAs to the Everglades is about 37 ppb of phosphorus. Some STAs are even reaching 74 ppb, more than seven times what the ecosystem can handle.
Still, we are closer to achieving the scientifically accepted 10-ppb standard with the help of Gov. Scott’s 2012 “Restoration Strategies” plan. A key water quality component of that plan is currently under construction, allowing us to move forward with the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). The CEPP will divert 70 billion gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee back to the Everglades each year, providing the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries with much-needed relief from what they experienced this past summer and benefiting the Everglades all the way to Florida Bay. However, since Lake Okeechobee water is also polluted with phosphorus, the CEPP includes a strategy for cleaning additional water to the same science-based standard so it can be delivered to the Everglades without causing further harm.
We all would love to see more water flowing into the Everglades ecosystem today. However, the science is clear — excess phosphorus will only do more damage. We must do what we can to protect remaining Everglades wetlands to ensure they continue to filter water, recharge our aquifer and provide habitat for myriad species of plants and animals that call the Everglades home.
Stephen Davis, wetland ecologist, Everglades Foundation, Palmetto Bay
Florida International University, Miami