Experts Urge Quick Land Purchases to Save Everglades

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2005 (ENS) - Federal and state agencies must accelerate acquisition and protection of land crucial to the restoration of Florida's Everglades for the massive project to have much chance of success, the National Research Council said Monday.

The council says "it seems certain" that some of the land needed for the restoration effort will soon be developed or become too expensive before the land acquisition program can be completed.

The government has allocated some $100 million to $200 million annually for land acquisition, but the schedule for purchasing the remaining needed land spans more than two decades.

Federal and state officials say more than 50 percent of the lands identified in the plan have been acquired, but more than 200,000 acres must still be bought.

Development in South Florida has boomed in the past few decades and land values continue to increase.

The committee did not recommend a new figure, rather says that "land should be purchased or conservation easements obtained now to prevent additional loss of land to development and to provide a buffer between the built and natural environments." everglades

The natural ecosystem of the Everglades needs a slow, steady, clean supply of water in order to survive. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
The report is the seventh and final in a series by the council to advise federal and state agencies on implementation of the 30 year, $8 billion federal and state effort to restore the Everglades - known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

Much of the Everglades has been drained or paved during the past 50 years - the world renowned "River of Grass" is now less than half its original size.

The ecosystem has been ravaged by agricultural nutrient pollution, invasive species and inhibited natural water flows caused by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects and subsequent development.

There is no chance the Everglades can be restored to its past state, but the CERP aims to restore 2.4 million acres of the ecosystem while ensuring clean and reliable water supplies and providing flood control.

It is a daunting effort by any measure - the plan's 55 projects span 16 counties across more than 18,000 square miles and center on revamping the Central and Southern Florida Project, which includes 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees, and hundreds of water control structures.

This massive water control project has provided south Florida with a reliable water supply and flood protection, but it has contributed to the widespread degradation of the Everglades ecosystem, which is dependent upon a natural, slow, steady, clean flow of water.

Some 1.7 billion gallons of water drains from the Everglades to coastal waters daily.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan aims to capture much of this excess water, store it in surface and underground areas and then supply the water to the natural system as well as urban and agricultural users as needed. panther

The Florida panther is one of many species that has suffered from manmade changes to the Everglades ecosystem - fewer than 100 exist in the wild. (Photo courtesy National Parks Conservation Association)
Last October Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced the state would accelerate eight flood control and water supply projects.

But overall funding for CERP has fallen far short of its requirements and federal agencies are far behind schedule on almost every component of Everglades restoration.

The report urges officials to target restoration strategies that can provide ecological improvements sooner, rather than later.

"Continuing losses of habitat and ecological functioning, along with the uncertainties associated with the restoration plan, argue for more emphasis on achieving near-term ecological results," said committee chair Jean Bahr, professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The report warns that the current plan relies heavily on "novel technologies that must undergo decade-long pilot studies to test their effectiveness" and on projects that require a high degree of engineering and ongoing human control and maintenance.

For example, the Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR)involves pumping water in and out of a massive underground storage facility.

The project is planned to provide nearly three-quarters of the plan's new water storage, but is an "untested technology." everglades

The report calls for quick action to aid Everglades National Park. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
The committee says depending on ASR for so much of the plan's water hinders the possibility of providing more natural flows early on, given the long timeline required for testing and constructing the technology.

It recommends exploring - and accelerating - alternative steps that could more quickly restore natural water flows to the ecosystem.

Alternatives such as storing more water in Lake Okeechobee might help achieve ecological improvements more quickly, said the committee, which also advised officials to analyze ways to provide more natural water flows to Everglades National Park earlier in the restoration.

The report calls for a review of the role of the 700,000 acre Everglades Agricultural Area - a major source of degradation to the ecosystem.

Restoration of natural flows would leave the future of agricultural operations in the area uncertain, and development would further strain the restoration effort, the report says.

The committee calls on officials to explore the benefits of using the area for water storage or allowing it to return to its original wetland condition.

The full report can be found here.