Miami-Dade County

Everglades work needs to include rising seas, report says

Restoration work to repair Florida’s ailing Everglades does not adequately address risks from climate change and rising seas, a comprehensive update by a panel of scientists said Friday.

The assessment by the National Resource Council, mandated by Congress, is issued every two years to track progress on the landmark $13.5 billion deal cut by state water managers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000. While scientists in the past harshly criticized slow work on the 68 projects spread across the vast 200-mile ecosystem that is expected to take 40 years, in their 2012 report they applauded efforts made despite paralyzing bureaucracy and complicated science.

But a better understanding of climate change now makes the need to speed up work more urgent, Virginia Tech biologist and panel chair Jeffrey R. Walters wrote.

“Climate change and sea-level rise pose enormous challenges to a rainfall driven system,” he wrote.

The low wetland sits atop porous limestone, making it especially sensitive. Saltwater intrusion from rising seas already threatens Everglades freshwater habitats and urban water supplies, the scientists wrote, noting that about 20 canal gates are considered highly vulnerable.

While risks magnify the urgency for progress, planners also need to take a step back and ensure that work incorporates projections from new climate models, the report said.

Existing projects rely on historic data that paints an “incomplete picture,” they wrote. Goals are based on information from the past 50 years and don’t account for new projections that may make some work impossible. In fact, the Everglades may need to hold and store even more water than now anticipated. A changing climate may also alter urban and agricultural demands from nearly six million users, particularly farmers who may require more fresh water.

The scientists also evaluated progress made on the central Everglades, a critical area that for too long was neglected because of contentious water quality issues. Two years ago, state and federal water managers agreed to speed up a suite of projects that would restore a massive flow of water to avert further decline. The plan would allow Congress to authorize money for work before the project was completely designed. The plan was completed this year, but narrowly missed being included in a congressional waterworks bill.

The panel took particular aim at Congress’ failure to stick to its schedule for authorizing projects, saying it had impeded progress.

State budget cuts also slowed work, creating a domino effect that led the federal government to reduce its spending, the panel said. The Everglades restoration deal calls for a 50-50 share in costs. At one time, the state had outspent the federal government by about $7 billion. By September, the gap had narrowed to just $98 million, prompting the feds to significantly reduce their budget to keep from outspending the state.

Environmentalists, who have long complained about slow progress and lack of money, praised the research council’s assessment, calling it key to understanding how budgets, planning and changing science affect the ecosystem.

“Decision-makers must expedite restoration projects . . . to prevent further damage to the ecosystem,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades policy, said in a statement. “Sea-level rise and invasive exotic species compound the urgent need for restoration.”