Miami-Dade County

Urban wetland at Deering Estate offers glimpse at successful Everglades restoration

Much of the massive plan to restore the Everglades exists in theory, a vast and complicated circuit of interconnected canals, culverts, gates and reservoirs, mostly located far inland and far from people. Few sections have been built. Far more exist only in computer models.

But in the last two years, engineers have been fine-tuning a small but uniquely accessible project: an urban wetland sandwiched between tennis courts and walled McMansions near Palmetto Bay.

Located on the Deering Estate and an adjacent old mango farm, and part of the much bigger Biscayne Bay wetland restoration, the mini project represents the science behind the grand but stalled Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Known as CERP, the far-reaching plan is intended to cure the ailing ecosystem by restoring the flow and breadth of the River of Grass.

By comparison, this project by the South Florida Water Management District is tiny — just over 30 acres with a pump house sheathed in coral rock to mimic the nearby estate — and relatively inexpensive, at $4.2 million. The price tag for CERP, passed by Congress in 2000, is $10.5 billion.

‘Drop in bucket’

The mini wetlands project’s principal engineer, Jorge Jaramillo, describes it as a “drop in the bucket” in restoring the southern Everglades’ much-needed flow of fresh water into the bay. Still, he says, the urban wetlands matter, and not just because they are the first completed locally. Plans call for the project to include two more sections extending about 15 miles south, well past Homestead Air Force Base.

So far, it’s confirming scientists’ belief that they can restore, or at least partly repair, decades of damage caused by development and drying out. With water now freely flowing, upland trees that grew unnaturally around the Cutler Slough have started to die and lowland sedges and sawgrass have sprouted. Springs that for decades ran dry bubble with water. Salty water is fresher. And for the first time in years, the Chinese Bridge that Charles Deering built in 1916 across Cutler Creek spans an actual creek.

“It’s impressive to see changes so fast,” said Bahram Charkhian, the district’s lead environmentalist, whose job it is to determine whether the project works.

But environmentalists also say the mini wetlands project represents something less positive: the fragmented and sluggish attempts to repair the Everglades.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project — if fully completed — will ultimately divert 59 percent of the water now flowing into canals to 283 acres of wetlands, which will help replenish coastal nurseries where bait fish scavenge for shrimp and other shellfish. It may also help bring back oysters and the marine life that thrives on an oyster reef.

But one piece of that, a move that could deliver even more water and potentially replenish a far bigger swath of coastal wetlands, remains shelved, with no money for its estimated $18 million price tag. District engineers scraped up $180,000 to install a few culverts in the southernmost stretch, but land for that section still needs to be purchased.

Projects languishing

And that, say those who’ve watched restoration plans languish for more than a decade, is why CERP and its 68 projects spread over 38 years won’t get done.

“The Biscayne Bay coastal wetlands project is a prime example. Phase one was congressionally authorized and phase two isn’t yet,” said Dawn Sherriff, a senior policy advisor for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation.

Instead, advocates say, restoration needs to focus on a fast-tracking system that bundles projects and completes them over shorter periods. On Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board will vote on whether to pay its half of a $2.1 billion plan of coordinated projects that target the central Everglades; it endorsed the plan a year ago. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate approved separate bills covering the federal government’s half last year, but they have yet to reconcile them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will manage and build the projects, is expected to issue a report on a recommended plan for the central Everglades on April 22, Sherriff said.

“You’ll turn on the switch to the central Everglades and you will immediately have benefits because everything will work together,” she explained. Bundling projects “also helps because we get authorizations from Congress all in one sweep.”

Restoring coastal wetlands by spreading water is not new science. What is different, and why this project is working, scientists say, is how the water is managed.

Managing water

The Miami Rock Ridge, a coral rock spine about 25 feet above sea level and six miles wide along the state’s east coast from North Miami Beach to the Upper Keys, contained the fresh water in the eastern Everglades that once spilled out of Lake Okeechobee and flowed south. But in places, water eroded the sandy rock and broke free, creating valleys. As South Florida grew, many valleys were turned into canals to help drain more land for development. The canals dumped fresh water into the bay at single points, leaving the rest of the bay increasingly salty and choking the lush coastal estuaries.

In the early 1990s, Michael Ross, an environmental scientist with Florida International University, designed a project for the Water Management District intended to revive those estuaries at the south end of the bay, between Homestead’s Bayfront Park and east of Southwest 97th Avenue.

The project, with two sections across 100 acres, lasted until 2001 — nearly 10 years. At the end, he said, his results were negligible. But the problem, he determined, wasn’t the science. It was the water.

“We only had a little bit of water,” he said. “But the concept was good.”

So when Jaramillo, the engineer, designed his project, he made sure to include massive submerged electrical pumps that, if needed, could move up to 64 million gallons a day. And to keep his new neighbors happy, the pump house was adorned with copper flashing and green roof tiles to match the Deering Estate. Metal window hoods were covered with Bahama shutters. And a 2 1/2-acre freshwater wetland for environmental students was dredged where mango trees once grew.

In December 2012, he and Charkhian, the environmental engineer, turned on the pumps. But after the first year passed with few results, they realized they needed more water. In 2013, water managers at the district’s West Palm Beach headquarters gave them permission to raise the volume. In January and February last year, a crew armed with GPS devices mapped the wetland and found that the water inundating the wetland nearly perfectly matched the historic slough.

They quickly began to see changes. Soaking the wetland appears to be recharging groundwater. Salinity in one monitoring well downstream dropped dramatically, from as high as 20 percent to between 2 and 3 percent. Charkhian said he has spotted a gar downstream in water that had previously been too salty to suit the freshwater fish.

Harsh reality

That’s all positive news — but there’s a harsh reality, too. In a regular status report published this week, the Army Corps noted that while the project was improving hydrology, the bay itself was far from healthy. Severe cold weather in January 2010 weakened its shoal grass and reduced the number of plants and mangrove fish.

“Once an ecosystem changes, you can’t really restore it 100 percent back to what it was,” said Stephen Baisden, the Corps’ project manager.

There is also a competition for water, Ross pointed out.

“Rainfall hasn’t changed much. There’s just more competitors for that water. It’s a zero sum game, and you have to pick. And one reason Biscayne Bay doesn’t get much attention from the Everglades scientists is because at the same time, sea level is coming up,” he said, referring to rising seas caused by climate change. “So even if you put the same amount of water there, you wouldn’t have the same Biscayne Bay because sea level is a foot higher” and coastal estuaries would be saltier than they once were.

Still, Jane Graham, Audubon Florida’s policy manager of Everglades conservation, applauds the district for completing the wetlands, even if it’s just a small section.

“A lot of times, Everglades restoration is highly inaccessible. The average person can’t hop in an airboat and see an alligator or venture into the Everglades to see tree islands,” she said. “No one said this was going to be easy or fast. We just have to keep our wits about us and keep adjusting and, hopefully, we’ll have restored the largest ecosystem in the world.”