From the Kissimmee River that feeds it to the seemingly endless fields of sawgrass that characterize it, the Florida Everglades has a complex history of environmental woes and fights to save it. Twice the size of New Jersey, restoring what remains of the Everglades is a massive undertaking that could set an example for large-scale restoration projects worldwide.
The current status of Everglades restoration is complicated, so we’ll break it down.
Backstory: Nearly half of the Florida Everglades were drained and developed during the 19th and 20th centuries as South Florida’s urban development increasingly encroached upon the vast ecosystem that historically covered three million acres. Agricultural runoff of harmful pollutants, development and detrimental changes to water flow affected water quality throughout the region, damaging essential habitats for animals and fragmenting land belonging to two Native American tribes.
Pioneers like Marjory Stoneman Douglas fought for Everglades protection in the late 20th century and today’s conservationists continue the cause. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) became law in the year 2000, aiming to restore parts of the Everglades. Florida Trend reported an in-depth look at the status of CERP in January, reporting on criticism of the plan, its limitations, as well as positive outcomes.
What’s happening now:
- The Kissimmee River restoration is complete. “Twenty-two miles of river were backfilled, enabling the old meanders to recarve their path. Two dams were blown up or demolished. In all, the project will restore more than 40 square miles of river floodplain,” reported Amy Green for NPR in July.
- “Everglades restoration efforts took a step forward recently in the Picayune Strand State Forest when the largest of three pump stations began sending water south in sheets,” reported Naples News in July. The $800-million project removed roads and built pumps on 16,000 acres in an effort to restore Everglades water flow. The project is due for completion around 2024.
- A project to raise sections of U.S. 41, called the Tamiami Trail, is nearly complete. Raising the problematic road will allow water to more easily flow south into the Everglades. Read Craig Pittman’s take on the project here.
- Two costly reservoirs are in the works—one in Martin County and the other in Hendry County—which promise to capture runoff and excess water from Lake Okeechobee.
- Read more about other current priority projects here. Future projects are expected to include Loxahatchee River restoration, Okeechobee watershed restoration and Western Everglades restoration, reports Florida Trend.
It’s important to conserve and restore the Everglades because…while 50% of the historic Everglades has been developed, the only way that Floridians in the region can thrive is to protect what’s left of this ecosystem that provides drinking water for more than 8 million people, according to this story map. Returning the ecosystem to a semblance of its former glory benefits both people and nature, explains this piece in The Conversation.
But experts say climate change could seriously hinder Everglades restoration, as Scientific American reported in 2019. See this interactive map by NASA to visualize the potential impact of sea level rise in the Everglades. Extreme heat and drought has already resulted in mass sawgrass die-off, which could become a regular thing.
The bird’s eye view:
Everglades restoration sets an example of limitations and possible successes involved in large-scale conservation projects for other endangered wetlands in climate change hot spots across the nation and around the globe. According to the National Parks Service, “At a cost of more than $10.5 billion and with a 35+ year timeline, this is the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.”