With millions of people living on the southeast coast of Florida in what was formerly part of the Southern Everglades, is “restoration” to historic water flows possible?
Rather than focusing on the past, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends “a mid-course assessment that analyzes projected Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) outcomes in the context of future stressors,” in Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades: The Eighth Biennial Review, published this month.
“Rather than continuing its primary focus on restoring pre-drainage conditions and basing decisions on the ability to achieve those conditions under contemporary climate (1965-2005), the CERP program should emphasize restoration focused on the future of the South Florida ecosystem and build upon the accumulating knowledge base to support successful implementation of this program,” the report states.
Maps of the pre-drainage and current conditions illustrate the changes to the Southern Everglades since the creation of the Central & South Florida (C&SF) Project. Following the Great Florida Flood in 1947, which left much of the state south of Orlando under water, Florida asked the federal government for a master plan to tame nature’s excesses. In 1948, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation creating the C&SF Project. Construction began the next year and continued over 20 years as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the massive flood control plumbing system stretching from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.
The project included the East Coast Protection Levee, which runs from West Palm Beach to Miami, slicing off about 19 percent of the original Southern Everglades for urban development.
Another 27% of the Southern Everglades – an area formerly covered in Sawgrass plains – was designated for farming. This became as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). About a quarter of the original EAA is now in state or federal ownership for use as stormwater treatment areas and water control projects.
CERP, approved by Congress in 2000, a multibillion-dollar project, was originally envisioned as a 30- to 40-year effort to achieve ecological restoration by reestablishing the natural hydrologic characteristics of the Everglades, where feasible, and to create a water system that serves the needs of both the natural and the human systems of South Florida, the biennial report explains.
About 9 million people live in urban areas that were originally part of the Everglades. The drainage system designed to prevent flooding of homes means rainfall is drained off and sent to tide instead of slowly percolating into the earth while sheetflowing across a “river of grass.” With more people moving to Florida every day, plans must address both the human population’s demand for water and the increase in impervious surfaces that prevent the rain from soaking into the ground to recharge the aquifer.
The report points out the need for CERP to account for the changing climate and weather patterns: “This effort requires a rigorous assessment of the latest CERP project plans that examines their integrated performance under future climate and sea level–rise scenarios and other stressors.”
The report calls for a new integrated, systemwide modeling of the planned projects “to understand the combined benefits relative to restoration objectives.
“More rigorous analysis of the potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise on restoration outcomes is necessary in planning for all projects, so that restoration investments are designed for and more resilient to future conditions,” the report continues.