Everglades Rescue "Out on a Limb" Without Federal Aid

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
July 3, 2008
Florida's proposal to buy farmland to help restore clean water to the Everglades could be seriously hampered unless the U.S. Congress follows through on a commitment it made almost 20 years ago, some environmentalists say.

In 1989 Congress approved a plan for a series of major projects for Everglades restoration to be funded by Florida and the federal government. But so far the government hasn't come through.

Meanwhile the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) announced last week that it is willing to buy nearly 187,000 acres (75,700 hectares) from the United States Sugar Corporation—which bills itself as the nation's largest sugar cane producer—and restore the land.

The deal would be worth 1.75 billion U.S. dollars.

Until about a hundred years ago, that land was part of a natural filtration system that cleaned water before it flowed into the Everglades and then into Florida Bay.

The company's decision to sell its farmland and eventually go out of business was "historic and breathtaking," Florida Governor Charlie Crist told National Geographic News.

"It has the potential to restore the flow of the Everglades to the way God intended."

Although most experts were thrilled with the proposal, some fear that rehabilitation will be too much for the state agency to handle alone.

"The state is moving forward with its responsibilities without the federal government participating fully," said Tom Van Lent, a senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation in South Miami, Florida.

"They're going out on a limb here, no doubt about that."

Restoring the Flow

The Florida Everglades National Park covers about 1.5 million acres (611,000 hectares) at the tip of the Florida Peninsula. The adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve includes about 720,000 acres (291,000 hectares).

The area being proposed for sale lies north of the Everglades near Florida's giant Lake Okeechobee (see map).

Around the turn of the last century, ambitious developers built the first of a series of canals to drain this region so it could be used for human habitation and agriculture.

(Related news: "Huge, Freed Pet Pythons Invade Florida Everglades" [June 3, 2004].)

Much of the land has been used since the 1930s to grow and process sugar cane into granulated sugar.

According to the company's Web site, U.S. Sugar produces about 700,000 tons of cane sugar a year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the county's sugar production.

While the operation provides about 1,700 jobs, it has also contributed to degradation of water quality in the area.

Water that flowed through cleansing marshes a century ago now carries heavy loads of phosphates and nitrogen from farmlands.

And instead of being part of the filtration system, Lake Okeechobee is used as a giant reservoir for agriculture, while much of the water is routed away from the Everglades via canals.

State representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a member of the Florida Legislature from Miami, said he's optimistic that the state will continue its support for Everglades restoration.

Environmentalists, however, are uneasy.

"The issue I have, as thrilled as I am about the land sale, is how on Earth are they going to engineer this," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

"Until we get those details, I think we have to worry."

Tamiami Trail

The restoration project includes rebuilding part of U.S. 41, which runs through the heart of the Everglades between Tampa and Miami.

When the highway—known as the Tamiami Trail—opened in 1928, it was hailed as a milestone for Florida's development.

But the road also acts as a giant dike interrupting the flow of water through the Everglades.

Rebuilding the federal highway to restore the natural flow of water is supposed to be paid for by Congress.

Carol Wehle, executive director of the SFWMD, said she and others hope the purchase of the sugar firm will push Congress into action.

The federal government needs to restore water flow under the Tamiami Trail, or the land purchase is for naught, Wehle said.

If the deal is finalized in November, U.S. Sugar would continue its operations until 2014, when it would "turn the keys over" to the water management agency, said company vice president Robert Coker.

During this transition period, the district would meet with consultants, hold public hearings, and lay out its plans for the land.

Private engineering firms and construction companies would then handle the work, SFWMD's Wehle said.

The land would be used for a series of reservoirs and holding ponds that would clean the water before it is released into the Everglades.

While the region would not look the same as it did a century ago, "it would be performing the same function," Wehle said.

Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation scientist, said the importance of restoring the Everglades goes beyond merely preserving a unique ecosystem.

"The Everglades is reliant on the people of South Florida, and in turn the Everglades provides a water supply for a great deal of the population in South Florida," Van Lent said.

"It's a symbiotic relationship, and we haven't kept up our side."

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