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Driscoll discusses historical changes, restoration of Florida Everglades
Charles Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems at the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (LCS) at Syracuse University, offered a look at the historical changes of the Florida Everglades along with an overview of the ongoing restoration program and challenges associated with its implementation. The event, held Thursday, Feb. 17, at the Renaissance Plantation Hotel in Plantation, Fla., was attended by LCS Dean Laura J. Steinberg, LCS alumni, high school environmental science students and college supporters. Driscoll is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has been a member of the National Research Council on Everglades Restoration for six years.
The Everglades is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and probably the most famous wetland on earth. Restoration of the Everglades is a daunting task for several reasons, but the most fundamental are related to the physical attributes of the ecosystem that combine to create such an ecologically extraordinary system. The combination of vast expanses, topography, geology and climate interacted to create the historic patterns of communities that were characteristic of the Everglades:
- The large spatial extent of wetlands with high aquatic production supported a tremendous diversity of plants and animals.
- A highly diverse mosaic of plant and animal communities included upland tree islands, ridges, sloughs, wet prairies, swamps, marshes and estuarine habitats.
- The extremely low elevation gradients resulted in slow flow of water through the central Everglades. The peat and limestone substrate allowed water to flow throughout the year.
- The monsoon-type climate provided alternate wet and dry periods, which controlled biological activities such as bird nesting, plant and animal dispersal.
- The very low nutrient status of the ecosystem supported plant communities adapted to nutrient supply primarily from rainfall.
The original Everglades encompassed 10,890 square-miles, or seven million acres. Half the system remains today as a result of human activities. Water that flowed as the “river of grass” provides the freshwater supply, income and recreation for 6 million residents, 39 million annual visitors and a wide variety of agricultural, municipal and industrial activities.
Drainage of the wetlands allowed development to extend right up to the levees that hold back water from the Everglades. In 1992, Congress authorized the Water Resources Development Act to modify the Central and South Florida Project for ecosystem restoration of the Kissimmee River and directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a “restudy” of the C&SF Project. The restudy marks the beginning of the current Everglades restoration project.
To summarize the scientific findings, the conclusion of the restudy was that it was necessary to “get the water right” by supplying the ecosystem with appropriate quantities and quality of water at the correct time and in the correct places. The restudy culminated in a plan to restore the remaining natural system–the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which was authorized in the Water Development Act of 2000.
The goal of the CERP is “restoration, preservation and protection of the South Florida Ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” The programmatic regulations that guide the implementation of the CERP further clarify this goal by defining restoration as “the recovery and protection of the South Florida ecosystem so that it once again achieves and sustains the essential hydrological and biological characteristics that defined the undisturbed South Florida ecosystem.”
In Driscoll’s and the NRC’s opinion, there are five components that are critical for Everglades restoration to occur. There must be:
- Enough water storage capacity, combined with operations that allow for appropriate volumes of water to support healthy estuaries and the return of sheet flow through the Everglades while meeting other demands for water;
- Mechanisms for delivering and distributing the water to the natural system in a way that resembles historical flow patterns, affecting volume, depth, velocity, direction, distribution and timing of flows;
- Barriers to eastward seepage of water so that higher water levels can be maintained in parts of the Everglades ecosystem without compromising the current levels of flood protection of developed areas;
- Methods for securing water quality conditions compatible with restoration goals for a natural system that was inherently extremely nutrient poor, particularly with respect to phosphorus; and
- Retention, improvement and expansion of the full range of habitats by preventing further losses of critical wetland and estuarine habitat and by protecting lands that could be usefully part of the restored ecosystem.
Driscoll also outlined the key challenges to success:
- The need to identify what it is that CERP is restoring. Each of the many restoration stakeholders has a different view of what restoration is. For example, does society want the truly historic Florida Bay or the bay as it was in the 1950s and 1960s? They are very different.
- What does ‘getting the water right’ really mean? Is getting the quantity, quality, timing and distribution enough? What about flow rates? How do we include changing social drivers in CERP and the increasing demand for a constant supply of water? Who gets the water when it is a choice between natural systems and human populations?
- How do we keep CERP responsive to changing knowledge and provide sustained funding for the project over a 30-40 year period? Funding for CERP was removed from last year’s Water Resources Development Act.
- In the current plan, benefits to the ecosystem are 20 or more years in the future. During those 20 years, the condition of the biotic system will continue to deteriorate. How can CERP be done faster and greener so that benefits to natural system come much earlier in the restoration?