Welcome to the Everglades

President Barack Obama will visit the Florida Everglades on Earth Day.
President Barack Obama will visit the Florida Everglades on Earth Day. MIAMI HERALD

We can hardly think of a better place for President Obama to visit this Earth Day than the unparallelled natural wonder of the Everglades.

The Everglades that Mr. Obama will see on Wednesday is a dramatically reduced version of nature’s original, the result of human encroachment and the diversion of water to accommodate development and agriculture. Today, the federal and state governments are embarked on a project of historic significance designed to preserve and protect what’s left.

Mr. Obama arrives at a symbolically important moment — halfway into this 30-year effort known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. This vast engineering blueprint, covering parts of 16 counties and some 18,000 square miles, was approved by federal law in 2000. Thanks to CERP and federal laws such as the Clean Water Act, the vitality of the treasured ecosystem is undergoing gradual renewal. Progress is observable and undeniable.

But there still are many challenges. The project remains in jeopardy from a variety of sources, natural and man-made. Here, the great debate over climate change, endangered natural resources and the challenge to life on Earth, comes down to practical matters and political decisions.

Mr. Obama’s administration is taking the right course by doubling down on the value of CERP. His 2016 federal budget request for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Everglades restoration construction increased from $74.58 million to $130.92 million.

With CERP funding, Everglades supporters expect to see work begin on the next phase of a vital project to create a bridge on Tamiami Trail to remove the ground-level roadway that blocks the natural flow of water southward. Unclogging the “drain pipe” keeps fresh water on our peninsula.

The federal government’s commitment, unfortunately, has not always been matched by similar enthusiasm at the state level. Gov. Scott has promised to fulfill the state’s obligations regarding Everglades renewal, and he is to be commended for asking state lawmakers to commit 25 percent of Amendment 1 funds for Everglades restoration. This could funnel $5 billion to the work during the next two decades. But Mr. Scott and the Legislature have reneged on a deal to buy private farmland that sits south of Lake Okeechobee and could serve as both a reservoir and a filter for water flowing on its natural course.

As a result, billions of gallons of polluted water have been diverted into estuaries such as the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, preventing a natural southward flow that could be filtered by the land purchase and contribute to the goal of a healthy Everglades.

Skeptics in the climate-change debate, like Sen. Marco Rubio, a South Floridian, may express doubt over whether and how much human activity is a contributing factor, but he and others cannot deny that in the case of the Everglades, the dangers posed to its survival are man-made.

The trick is finding a way to co-exist with nature that keeps the Everglades and its great biological diversity flourishing, yet also allows for human activity. This is both the challenge and the promise facing leaders like President Obama and whoever follows him into the White House.

The great River of Grass is not only a magnificent landscape, justly recognized as a World Heritage Site, but also a life-giving force that sustains South Florida and allows its inhabitants to survive and flourish. Without a healthy Everglades, South Florida as we know it will cease to exist.