Saving the Everglades from sea-level rise means much more to South Florida than just protecting panthers, alligators and those pesky pythons. Without the Everglades as a buffer to hurricanes and as a source of drinking water, it’s the people living in South Florida who risk becoming the endangered species.
The Everglades guards our western flank during hurricanes, absorbing storm surge and the drenching rains that can come from hurricanes blowing in from the Gulf. And long after storm season passes, we rely on Everglades water seeping into and replenishing underground supplies we tap for drinking water.
But if the rising sea turns the Everglades into an inland sea, then climate change damage will get even closer to home for Southeast Florida.
Without the Everglades to play hurricane defense for us, the storm-surge flooding we already worry about along the Atlantic Coast also becomes a greater risk from the west. And if rising seas turn more of the freshwater Everglades salty, then the water seeping into aquifers threatens to foul our inland drinking water wells.
So just as South Florida communities are collaborating to get ready for flooding from a projected two-foot sea-level rise by 2060, we also must face the sea’s assault from the west. That’s why protecting what remains of the Everglades is more important than ever.
To push back at the invading sea, we must hurry to get more freshwater flowing to the Everglades.
That means Congress finally sending hundreds of billions of dollars to South Florida at the pace envisioned when the state and federal governments launched an Everglades restoration partnership in 2000. It means finishing construction of the reservoirs and other slow-moving restoration projects planned to get water flowing south.
And it requires reworking Everglades restoration plans to accommodate faster sea-level rise provoked by the warming atmosphere. An independent panel of scientists that evaluates the restoration for Congress has warned that a bigger infusion of freshwater may be needed for the Everglades to overcome sea-level rise.
That could mean building bigger reservoirs or other water storage options that would significantly increase the $16 billion restoration budget.
While that sounds like a lot, it’s actually a bargain if it helps protect the most populated region in Florida and saves an environmental gem. Like a dying patient desperate for a cure, the Everglades “has no chance of surviving” without Everglades restoration, said Randall Parkinson, a Florida International University coastal geologist.
“We are better off trying to keep the patient healthy,” he said.
Parkinson is among the scientists warning that without more restoration, sea-level rise — worsened by pollution-fueled climate change — could become the final, and fatal, injury humans inflict on the Everglades.
We already drained half of the Everglades to make room for sugar cane and development that occupy land where shallow waters once flowed unfettered from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.
Making matters worse, for decades we have allowed water laden with fertilizer and other pollutants to flow into and damage what remains of the famed River of Grass.
Now, if we don’t do more to halt rising seas, the Everglades could wash away, a self-inflicted wound from which South Florida can’t recover.
The good news is, Everglades restoration could help hold back the seas — or at least lessen the effects of saltwater pushing farther inland.
The bad news is, a state and federal collaboration to build reservoirs and treatment marshes is moving way too slowly, plagued by funding delays, construction problems, legal fights and political wrangling.
Plans call for storing and cleaning more of the water South Florida now drains out to sea for flood control. That freshwater could instead be used to replenish the Everglades and, in turn, boost South Florida’s drinking water supply.
“That’s the only way,” Jerry Lorenz, an Audubon Society scientist based in the Keys. “Start moving that freshwater from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay. … It will dramatically slow down saltwater intrusion. It will help to recharge our aquifer.”
“All of South Florida, whether you care about the Everglades or not, you are dependent on the Everglades,” he said.
But unless we pick up the pace on projects to get more freshwater flowing south, we could lose the race against an influx of saltwater.
And unless we heed warnings to include more freshwater storage into Everglades restoration, taxpayers’ $3 billion spent so far — and the billions more to come — could be wasted.
Already in Everglades National Park’s Cape Sable area, sea level is going up faster than it has in the past and the freshwater marshes there “have disappeared almost entirely,” according to the park’s website.
“It’s starting to accelerate,” Robert Johnson, director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center, said about sea-level rise in Everglades National Park. “We are losing ground, literally, to the effects of sea-level-rise.”
Of particular concern, as coast-hugging mangroves move farther inland along with the saltier water, “peat” soil that makes up the Everglades is washing away and not getting replenished.
“As that (peat) falls off, the Everglades are shrinking and are more susceptible to sea-level rise,” said Ashley Smyth, a University of Florida scientist studying sea-level rise. “You (would be) losing that marsh that you think of when you think of the Everglades.”
You don’t have to be a tree hugger, bird watcher or airboat enthusiast to have a stake in the Everglades.
Whether you are someone who canoes through Shark River Slough or someone who doesn’t even notice the Everglades when you drive along the Sawgrass Expressway, if you live in South Florida your fate is tied to what becomes of the fading River of Grass.
We must save the Everglades, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the future of those living nearby depends on its survival.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.