Everglades Restoration

Everglades restoration is a multifaceted, moving target of ongoing initiatives mixed with planning and implementation of projects that will continue for another two decades.

The modern considerations for restoration grew from initiatives in the 1970s to fix growing problems. The suite of initiatives underway now is a mix of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and numerous non-CERP programs that overlap or now coordinate with CERP including:

  • Kissimmee River restoration
  • Herbert Hoover dike Rehabilitation
  • Invasive Species Research and Management
  • C-111 South Dade Project
  • Everglades Construction Project
  • Modified Water Deliveries

The Everglades Forever Act and Everglades Construction Project

A huge effort that is part of ecosystem improvements but not part of CERP is a State of Florida program to reduce phosphorus in waters entering the Everglades Protection Area (the WCAs and Everglades National Park) from the EAA. Armed with proof of the very high phosphorus levels in Everglades water and soils coming from the EAA and deleterious effects in the Everglades, the federal government took the issue to the courts. On October 27, 1988, the state of Florida (Specifically the Department of Environmental Regulation — now named the Florida Department of Environmental Protection‚— and the South Florida Water Management District) was sued for violations of Florida’s own standards regarding waters entering the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and water directed to Everglades National Park.

The legal action stimulated research on phosphorus levels and treatment technology, and prompted improved agriculture practices in the EAA. The lawsuit was settled by an agreement embodied in the Everglades Forever Act of 1994 (EFA)., which required the state to develop a numerical standard for phosphorus entering the Everglades Protection Area, and set a timetable for conformance, including construction of treatment facilities. The South Florida Water Management District constructed a demonstration project for wetland treatment, which consisted of 4,000 acres of the EAA abutting the northwest side of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The formation of peat soil was the intended long term means of phosphorus removal. The goal was to reduce the average influent concentration of phosphorus from typically 175 ppb to less than 50 ppb, which was an early estimate of an Everglades standard (later set at 10 ppb). The demonstration project was more successful than anticipated, and six stormwater treatment areas (STAs) were eventually designed and constructed for compliance with this act as the Everglades Construction Project. They are STA-1E, STA-1W (which incorporated the demonstration project), STA-2, STA-¾,, STA-5, and STA-6, totaling 68,000 acres of which 57,000 is effective treatment area. STA performance and timetables have been the subject of litigation concluding that oversight of the State of Florida by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was negligent, forcing corrections. The state developed a revised treatment plan that was accepted in 2012. The STAs are operated under both the EFA and federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.

After rule development and litigation, the actual phosphorus criterion, generalized as 10 ppb, is a four-part test applied to the results of many monthly sampling points (stations) in the water conservation areas that receive water from the STAs. It is codified in Chapter 62-302.540 F.A.C. as follows, applicable separately to each water body, for example, a particular WCAs.

  1. The 5-year geometric mean averaged across all stations is less than or equal to 10 ppb.
  2. The annual geometric mean averaged across all stations is less than or equal to 10 ppb for 3 of 5 years.
  3. The annual geometric mean averaged across all stations is less than or equal to 11 ppb.
  4. The annual geometric mean at each individual station is less than or equal to 15 ppb.

Modified Water Deliveries, “Mod Waters”

Of the efforts to rehabilitate specific damaged portions of the Everglades, this program stands out. It involved the Northest Shark River Slough (NESRS), the overdrained eastern part of the historic Shark River Slough south of the Tamiami Trail.

The Corps of Engineers was charged with determining how to improve flows under the 10,7 mile section of the Tamiami Trail and into NESRS, and in June 1992 published its General Designs Memorandum (GDM). The latter specified breaching the L-67A levee to allow water to pass from WCA-3A into WCA-3B and then through existing culverts under the Tamiami Trail into NESRS. Releases would then sheet-flow south through easter Everglades National Park to Taylor Slough and ultimately to Florida Bay. Mod Waters immediately was met by several concerns and controversies that were eventually resolved, but the original schedule to compete construction by 1997 was left in history. Not until Mod Waters became critical to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan did it start moving. An early achievement in March 2013 was the completion of a 1-mile bridge on the Tamiami Trail that allowed much greater flows from the canal to move south through NESRS toward Florida Bay. *At the time of publication* an additional 2.6 miles of bridging was scheduled to start construction in 2016, but the big picture was the Central Everglades Planning Process (CEPP) which folded Mod Waters into CERP.

Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)

Upon authorization in the federal Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2000, a 50-50 joint effort of the federal government and the State of Florida officially became the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Important guiding principles of CERP are:

  • Restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing required flood protection and water supply. Emulating the original system’s water storage is the largest general element of the plan. The overall generalization of CERP’s purpose is to ensure the “right quantity, quality, timing, and distribution” of water.
  • Incorporate water quality considerations and criteria (under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act). Water quality is the area where the modern plan most deviates from the original C&SF Project as there were no water quality standards or regulations to be considered then, except for recognition that freshwater supplies required protection from encroaching saline coastal waters.
  • Base the plan on the best available science.
  • Incorporate adaptive monitoring, assessment, and management to allow for corrections to the plan and its implementation as more is learned about the performance of the system.

CERP is comprised of 68 operational and structural features called “components.” Many of these components require that water control structures be constructed and/or that existing structures be removed. Other components are strictly operational – defining how an existing feature will be operated, such as Lake Okeechobee’s water level.

Almost from the beginning, CERP has had unforeseen difficulties with progress — not surprising for such a huge undertaking. Controversy and rising costs were critiqued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This was in spite of an early effort to streamline some projects. Difficulties persist in many areas, with aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) being an example. Initially, ASR was anticipated to be a huge savings for CERP by being able to store water underground in the Floridan aquifer instead of having to purchase large tracts of land and build storage reservoirs. However, recent research, including pilot testing, has shown numerous concerns, to the extent that the potential ASR benefits for Everglades restoration have significant uncertainties. Issues involve far lower recovery than formerly estimated; problematic discharge to nontarget locations including reemergence to the surface or to undersea locations; sinkhole concerns; and water quality concerns in recovered water, notably arsenic.

Despite difficulties in implementing CERP, there has been some progress.

Everglades Expedited Projects (Formerly “Acceler8”)

Because early CERP projects were slow in starting, the SFWMD selected eight projects in 2004 that showed promise of being unencumbered and put them on expedited tracks, with the initial catchy name “Acceler8.” Some were CERP and some were non-CERP projects that were related and needed by CERP. A unique funding plan was advanced for these, with the overall intent of achieving restoration benefits of water quality and habitat improvement ahead of schedule. Ongoing or completed projects now include the C-43 Reservoir serving the Caloosahatchee, the C-44 Reservoir and STA serving the St. Lucie River, the Picayune Strand canal back-filling restoration in the western Big Cypress, the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Phase I, and the C-111 Spreader Canal for deliveries into Taylor Slough.

Water pumps were officially turned on at the C-44 Reservoir in western Martin County on November 19,2021.

One expedited project, the A-1 Reservoir in the EAA, highlights unforeseen circumstances that occur in Everglades restoration. The reservoir was under construction by the SFWMD when, in June 2008, Governor Crist announced a state plan to buy 187,000 acres of lands owned by U.S. Sugar in the EAA for $1.75 billion. Completely unanticipated and hugely controversial, the plan opened the possibility of major improvements in restoration, such as the possibility of a flow-way and treatment works for Lake Okeechobee waters to move south into the Everglades. At considerable cost for contract termination, construction of the A-1 Reservoir stopped. Then in 2013, after a major downturn of the economy that downsized the U.S. Sugar deal, and following a lawsuit settlement involving EPA mandated improvements in EAA water quality treatment, the A-1 Reservoir project was back on. It had a revised design as a flow equalization basin (FEB) to improve the performance of the adjacent STAs. In addition, with its new design and related improvements in STAs, the A-1 FEB became integral to a major improvement in CEPP, the Central Everglades Planning Project.

The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP)

Launched in 2011, CEPP grew out of concern for putting several interdependent CERP and non-CERP projects in the heart of the Everglades together as a unit that would work and be authorized as a unit. In the geographic hub of the plan was the CERP component of decompartmentalizing WCA-3 and enhancing sheet flow. There was no way to accomplish that component without resolving an additional source of water from the north, namely from Lake Okeechobee, and a recipient path for treating and conveying water southward, the latter in the process of being solved by MOD Waters. CEPP was envisioned as a way to resolve those issues. All of the lands required for the plan were publically owned so that the process would not be encumbered by unresolved or contested land acquisitions. Viewed as critical to overall Everglades restoration—for the hydration of the freshwater Everglades and Florida Bay and concurrent reduction of high flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries—CEPP was put on a fast track called “expedited planning.” The CEPP Project Delivery Team was co-led by the USACE and SFWMD and involved many open meetings for public input. Part of the urgency came from a growing concern for the importance of water flow in the Everglades. Continued deterioration of the WCAs due to the lack of flow was recognized, and the early results of flow studies were becoming available by 2010. The final recommended plan resolves moving water from Lake Okeechobee through storage and treatment in the EAA, then spread into a reasonably natural flow path through WCA-3A and -3B into Everglades National Park and on to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It provides an average of 200,000 acre feet of additional water to the Everglades annually, approximately two-thirds of the amount estimated for full implementation of CERP. That diversion represents a reduction in damaging flood control releases to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. With completion of the Project Implementation Report (PIR) in July 2014, the process required only 3 years compared with at least 6 years for most CERP projects. The Record of Decision was signed in August 2015 so that the project could move forward upon Congressional authorization and funding in a WRDA.

Restoration and the Endangered Species Act

Prior to implementing any project that may affect federally listed species, the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 must be met. Conservationists view the ESA — and its state equivalents— as powerful tools that help in the protection of disappearing wildlife species.

Because the intent of the law is to prevent extinction of individual species, the legal requirements can force a collision course between species having conflicting ecological requirements, or become obstacles to restoring ecosystems because of conflicts between the narrow requirements of one or more individual species and the broader goal of general ecosystem restoration.

In the long run, the present ESA (and state equivalents) could cause more extinction than would occur if well-conceived ecosystem strategies were incorporated. To be blunt, single-species management is a trap. Protection of a species of populations should be weighed against weider ecological values, that is, general ecosystem functions including a suite of representative species that characterize the health of the ecosystem. In this context, triage might sometimes be required — not permissible in the present ESA. Most conservationists would look in horror at a decision that subjects a species or population to extinction or extirpation. However, the consequences of steadfast protection must be weighed against the potential demise of an ecosystem, one species at a time, ending in ultimate failure of the original intent — to protect species from extinction.

Restoration Versus Climate Change and Rising Sea Level

The only trend in climate change that appears certain is the overall measure — sea level is rising at a rate just shy of a foot per century. However, there is reason to believe that climate change that affects rainfall and tropical storms/hurricanes may be of a more immediate concern. Anticipating cycles and trends in climate and weather is of critical importance. For example, original planning for Everglades restoration under CERP used rainfall in the 30-year period 1965-1995, thought to encompass a good range of wet and dry conditions. Despite adaptive management, many features for water storage have been sized based on flows anticipated by this period of record. Large deviations from the expected range of rainfall would obviously cause unanticipated problems of not enough water, or systems too often stressed to limits or overwhelmed.

As to the future, synthesis of climate data led to the following conclusion and expectations.

  • South Florida average annual temperatures will rise by about 2°F by mid-century and by 3–5°F by century end. These projections are based on extrapolating probable greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Rainfall for southern Florida will decrease perhaps 10%, trending toward less at the southern extreme of the peninsula.
  • Tropical storm and hurricane data indicate that, since 1970, their apparent increase in destructive potential is significant and that it is related to increased sea-surface temperature.
  • In the future, hurricanes may be somewhat less frequent, but those that do develop will be of a greater average intensity (wind and rainfall).

For Everglades restoration, this forecast means that designed features must be able to withstand relatively greater extremes of water quantity. With an average of less rainfall, it also means that CERP’s water storage features may be even more important. The present flood control system discards far too much water, accentuating droughts because of inadequate storage.

Sea-level rise is of obvious concern. The implications of rising water relative to street or building elevations is simple to understand, but ecological consequences are far more involved. By their location, mangroves are a foremost concern. Given slowly rising sea level, it has been documented that healthy mangroves can accrete peat and sediments, and keep pace with rising water. Their demise comes from too little freshwater and/or sea level that rises to rapidly.

The only positive note for the current rate of sea-level rise is that healthy mangrove swamps and freshwater Everglades with abundant flow can counteract the effects of sea-level rise, again underscoring the importance of Everglades restoration.

The Economics of Everglades Restoration

Most people think that the cost of Everglades restoration is an investment in an improved environment without considering any measured economic benefit returned. An extensive study was conducted in 2010 to compare the cost of Everglades restoration, specifically CERP, with the value of economic benefits that would accrue from a restored ecosystem. The time frame was 50 years. Using a conservative approach, the study quantified the values that would come from six categories. One, fishing, included separate accounting for recreational and commercial values. The result revealed a huge monetary benefit of four times the investment cost of CERP.

What Lies in the Future

From its inception in 1947, society has been sure that Everglades National Park is justified and worth keeping. But it is now clear that restoration of the park is a huge undertaking, reaching far beyond its boundaries.

In this author’s view, the big challenges that lie ahead are:

  1. Conquering degradation caused by invasive species: It may be melaleuca (good progress), Old World climbing fern (poor but promising progress), or the Burmese python followed in potential damages by the Argentine tegu (damaging, out of control, and without solid prospects for being solved). The threats are clear from our many examples, but the importation of additional plants and animals only gets attention when it is too late. Not counting the costs of degradation to the environment, once out of the bag or pot, the cost of control can be enormous, and it is your tax dollars.
  2. Correcting water quality: Regarding phosphorus, Lake Okeechobee’s waters and sediments show little promise of being solved within a reasonable time frame. Correcting inflow quality to the lake, involving treatment and additional storage is critical. On the other hand, considerable progress has been made in phosphorus reductions for waters entering the Everglades. The job is unfinished but headed in the right direction, the missing piece being the ability to treat truly significant volumes of water from Lake Okeechobee. Of other water quality problems in the Everglades, local mercury source controls have been helpful, but the mercury related and independent problems of sulfur contamination (sulfate leading to sulfide toxicity) remain an increasing threat. Just like the problem with invasive species, water quality is far more expensive to correct once the subject is “out of the bag”.
  3. Correcting water quantity, timing, and distribution: Throughout CERP, it is stressed that the proper quality, quantity, timing, and distribution of water are key. The question is sometimes asked, if you could only have one—water quality or quantity—what’s more important? Imagine asking an astronaut, “What can we stop, your water or your air?” History has been demonstrated that the Everglades and the coastal estuaries can be killed with poor water quality as well as with adverse hydrology. Both must be solved. In addition, it is now apparent that the proper rate of flow must occur periodically or ridge-and-slough landscape will be entirely lost. Ridge-and-slough landscape was likely a key to the huge wildlife success of the pre drainage Everglades.

The questions of water quantity and quality bring up a concern that remains perplexing in the politics of Everglades restoration—the outlook for providing more storage and treatment throughout the system but especially for moving sufficient treated water south from Lake Okeechobee. That same water is linked to periodic damaging flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, and was a major shortcoming of the original CERP. An important step forward has been made with the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). But CEPP only utilizes some of the troublesome flows from Lake Okeechobee, and any plan to move substantially more water would require much more treatment and conveyance capacity in the EAA. A plan to purchase 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar lands in the EAA that could have solved the impasse was negotiated by Governor Crist in 2008. With trades for optimal locations, the purchase could have solved storage, treatment, and conveyance needs of CERP and state water-quality requirements. A downturn in the economy caused an initial and greatly downsized purchase of 26,800 acres in 2010. The two parcels in that purchase were needed for expanded stormwater treatment. That was good. Understandable with continued economic concerns, another option was bypassed in 2013. But in 2014, 75% of Florida voters approved a Land Acquisition Trust Fund that provided a funding source, and it specifically identified lands in the EAA as qualifying. Then, in March 2015, a thorough evaluation by the University of Florida concluded that land in the EAA was crucial to solving a wide range of restoration difficulties. Yet, in October 2015, the SFWMD Board ignored its option to purchase an additional 46,800 acres.

At the root of the land purchase problem is a much larger question of waning support for Everglades restoration that has allowed political influence to derail progress. It does not take much digging into the economics of Big Sugar, particularly the federal sugar subsidy, to understand the 2015 failure to acquire additional EAA lands. What is needed is for the voting public interested in the various ramifications of Everglades restoration, including its projected economic benefits to get mobilized. Otherwise we will be left with the big questions of the future. We will be unable to treat and move enough water south through the ecosystem, and excesses will continue to be “dumped” as damaging discharges to the northern estuaries, impairing the ecology and important economies of those coastal areas.

SFWMD governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch peers down at a large bloom of toxic algae at the gates of Port Mayaca in Lake Okeechobee. Photo by John Moran, 2018

Lodge, Thomas E.. The Everglades Handbook. CRC Press. Kindle Edition.