IN THE EVERGLADES, Fla. (AP) Out here, where turtles lumber across two-lane highways, sugar is king and alligators own the swamp, the silence is broken by the sound of rumbling trucks and earthen explosions.
Construction crews are blowing up rocks and gouging out an area bigger than Manhattan as they work to build the world’s largest aboveground man-made reservoir — 25 sq. mi. (65 sq km). It will eventually hold 62 billion gallons of water and is a key component to restoring the River of Grass.
Nearly a century’s worth of dikes and dams for flood control have left the Everglades distressed, parched and precariously close to collapse. Once spread across more than 6,250 sq. mi. (16,190 sq km), the ecosystem has shrunk in half, replaced with homes and farms and a crisscrossing grid of about 2,000 mi. (3,220 km) of canals to divert water.
For the intentions of the time, it was considered a job well done.
“They built this thing beautifully,” said Terrence “Rock” Salt of the U.S. Interior Department. “But as we look back at it through the lens of our current 21st-century values and understanding, you get a different take on it which leads to our restoration efforts now.”
Today, one of Florida’s most pressing needs is storage of water, which once flowed freely south all the way into Florida Bay. When a hard rain falls, gravity now pushes the overflow out into the ocean to keep from inundating some 5 million people who now live in the region.
That’s where the massive reservoir just south of Lake Okeechobee comes in. Its intent is to help restore some of that natural flow by keeping water from heading out to sea.
No one disagrees that water storage is key to restoration, but the entire Everglades effort has for years pitted environmentalists against the government, each side wary of the other’s intentions.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued over the reservoir, claiming the state has not legally committed itself to using the water primarily for Everglades restoration. While the state says 80 percent of the water will be for environmental purposes, the group fears that without a legally binding commitment, development and agriculture pressures could mean the water may go elsewhere.
“The Everglades and everyone deserves better than that,” said council attorney Brad Sewell.
The entire Everglades system has lost 90 percent of its wading bird population, and 68 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.
But it’s no easy task to fix. The channelizing of South Florida allows engineers to move water at will. The result has been devastating to the ecosystem. The only way forward today is to re-engineer nature to work more naturally.
“We’re certainly never going to return it to the way it was 150 years ago,” said Stuart Appelbaum of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is partnered with the South Florida Water Management District to do the work. “But we can do our best.”
It’s a daunting project decades in the making that requires each piece of the complex restoration puzzle — reservoirs, water treatment areas and back-filling of channels — to work in conjunction with the others.
While the project has been slow-going, there are signs of success.
In the north, dozens of wading birds have returned to the Kissimmee River basin, the Everglades headwaters, as its historical path is restored.
In the south, a pair of newly born panther cubs were discovered last year near the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Among the most endangered species on the planet, the big cats once roamed by the thousands throughout the southeastern United States, but development has crowded out their only remaining habitat in southwest Florida. Scientists estimate there are just about 100 panthers remaining in Florida.
But much work remains and funding is tight.
It is the largest wetlands restoration effort in the world. One component was approved by Congress in 2000 and is formally known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. It was originally estimated to cost $7.8 billion and take 30 years. The price tag has now ballooned to billions more because of rising construction and real estate costs.
The plan called for the state and federal government to be 50-50 partners, but to date, Florida has committed more than $2 billion, while the federal government has spent only several hundred million dollars.
Last year, Congress authorized about $1.8 billion for Everglades projects but the money has yet to be allocated and competition is stiff from other states.
“I don’t know what’s possible given the ridiculous situation we face with respect to the federal budget,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “But we are certainly going to try to see if we can forge some kind of reasonable budget compromise with this administration so we can move forward on this.”
Florida’s budget also is tight. The state House recently cut all Everglades funding from its proposed spending plan but state water managers overseeing restoration efforts expect some money will eventually be allocated, regardless.
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