The draining of Florida’s Everglades started in the late 1800s as an effort to convert the wetlands into land fit for agricultural, residential and commercial development.
According to the National Park Service, in 1948 Congress authorized a Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project that drained half of the original Everglades and turned South Florida into the globally important economic region it is today.
But the unintended consequences of the drainage brought worsened water quality, destruction of natural habitats and loss of native species that once thrived there. In the southern Everglades, the lack of fresh water destroys critical habitat; and in Florida Bay, excess water ruins the saltwater balance and kills off habitat that supports world-class recreational fishing in the Florida Keys.
Following an environment-related survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, the Miami Herald asked readers what they want to know about the environmentally sensitive peninsula we call home.
Miami resident Adriana Caballero asked: Where are we with Everglades water flow restoration? And additionally, where are we with mangrove restoration?
Reviving the Everglades
A massive, joint restoration undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the Florida Department of Transportation is the largest water restoration project ever in the United States.
It was approved by Congress in 2000, and will eventually cost $10.5 billion over 35 years.
Despite much delay and slow-moving approval by Congress, three incremental phases of the massive project have been funded for completion.
The most recent project to raise the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) was fully funded in June and when finished next year will allow more water to flow under the 91-year-old road that has dammed up the marshes and parts of Florida Bay for decades, and reconnect pieces of a vast water system that stretches from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades to Florida Bay. Half of the historic Everglades, which is twice the size of New Jersey, has been developed, causing major water flow issues that affect the environment.
Letting more clean water flow south to Florida Bay is key to stopping a massive seagrass die-off, as a lack of freshwater makes the water too salty. Allowing more water to reach Everglades National Park could also reduce flow to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, which get saturated with too much water released from Lake Okeechobee.
It could also help minimize flooding in water conservation areas in the central Everglades where wildlife faces drowning in the floodwater.
The other two projects near completion include a $417 million effort to reroute water into Shark River Slough, and a $25 million project to mitigate damage caused when a canal was carved into marshes and cut off water to Taylor Slough. The projects should help revive marshes dammed up by the Tamiami Trail.
It’s not just project funding from state and federal government that is supporting the so-called “River of Grass.”
In 2014, Floridians voted for an amendment to the Constitution that requires the Legislature to appropriate funds each year for land conservation and Everglades restoration efforts. In 2016, the Legislature passed a bill that created a dedicated fund for Everglades restoration, valid through 2026. It is supposed to deliver about $200 million in restoration projects for the Everglades.
What about the mangroves?
When it comes to restoring Florida’s 469,000 acres of mangroves, the approach is less organized.
The state mandates that trimming or altering the sensitive mangroves must be regulated by local governments and approved by the state, but there’s no state or federal restoration plan.
Mangrove forests thrive in salty water, and provide protected areas for fish and crustaceans, as well as other animals like coastal birds that use the roots or branches for shelter, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to providing habitat, mangroves work to protect the coast from storm winds and floods, and filter water to keep it clear and clean.
Over time, the forests have diminished due to human activity, most notably in Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and Lake Worth, near West Palm Beach. Water pollution, herbicides and urban development can suffocate the mangroves and cut off the oxygen supply to the underground roots.
Naples-based Conservancy of Southwest Florida has a handful of ongoing restoration and monitoring projects, and the Miami-based Reclamation Project worked from 2006 to 2013 to grow mangrove seedlings at the Miami Science Museum, which were later planted along Biscayne Bay by volunteers.
In addition to community-led initiatives to protect mangroves, county-wide programs such as Miami-Dade’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program work to conserve and acquire land to prevent storm surge threats and nourish eroded shorelines that are hosts to mangroves.