JUDY WOODRUFF: Last month, on the anniversary of Earth Day, President Barack Obama visited Florida’s Everglades to highlight one of biggest threats from climate change: the rise in sea level that’s already impacting one of the unique natural habitats in all the world.
The consequences aren’t just to the hundreds of species of animals and plants that for centuries have called the Everglades home. It’s to the economy and way of life for millions in South Florida who depend on the vast and teeming watershed once dubbed the “river of grass.”
Special correspondent Mike Taibbi touched down on that great river to get a current assessment of its health and prospects.
This story comes to the NewsHour from WNET and the team that produces PBS NewsHour Weekend.
MIKE TAIBBI: Forty-year-old Pete Frezza has spent his working life in the Everglades in two distinctly different roles, as one of the many fishing guides who exploit its rich waters to make a living
PETE FREZZA, Audubon Society: Hey, we got one. All right.
MIKE TAIBBI: And as an Audubon Society biologist who thrills at the sight of dolphins corralling a breakfast of fresh mullet or the odd and elegant roseate spoonbill foraging for their own meals.
PETE FREZZA: You will notice they’re in that small, shallow pond. Their bill is sweeping back and forth. They’re catching shrimp. There, one just caught a fish.
MIKE TAIBBI: But Frezza’s wonder at what he sees every day is tinged with worry over what he knows, that the intrusion of rising seawater is moving the vital estuary where salt meets fresh inland, shrinking the Everglades, and changing spots like this one, where there were nearly 400 spoonbill nests barely a decade ago.
PETE FREZZA: Currently, we only have about 40 to 50 nests in this area. A lot of these birds are now shifting their nesting locations farther inland.
MIKE TAIBBI: The birds are just one sign, one of the many markers scientists are watching that show that as saltwater from the oceans flows inward it impacts freshwater wildlife, and threatens the aquifers that supply drinking water for more than 7 million Floridians.
So when President Obama came here in April, the science community was grateful for the high-profile emphasis.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In terms of economic impact, all of this poses risks to Florida’s $82 billion tourism industry, on which so many good jobs and livelihoods depend.
MIKE TAIBBI: For now, tourism in the Everglades appears to be thriving.
MAN: In Germany, the Everglades are well-known as the best place in the world.
MIKE TAIBBI: It certainly is a unique place. The great river of grass flows south from Lake Okeechobee as a shallow sheet of freshwater roughly 60 miles wide and a hundred miles long, until it meets saltwater.
In the past century, the canals and drainage ditches dug to support development and agriculture have shrunk the Everglades, and, today, a wild habitat once the size of Connecticut is smaller by more than half. The Everglades is now a habitat diminished by a frequent shortage of freshwater. Add to that saltwater intrusion pushed by rising tides, eight inches of rise in the 20th century, and up to four more feet projected by the end of this century, and for many experts like Frezza, this could spell disaster for this crucial watershed.
PETE FREZZA: From our research, what we have found is the small fish that are the forage base for wading birds do much better and are much more productive under fresher conditions. So, as the saltier it gets, that’s less productive for these small fish. Therefore, it’s affecting the health and status of the wading bird species that we’re monitoring.
MIKE TAIBBI: And if the birds are losing their food supply, so are the big game fish. The damage is clear, according to some backcountry charter captains.
MARK GILMAN, Charter Boat Captain: There’s no doubt that, right now, we’re seeing less predatory fish than we did 10 years ago. And that says a lot right there.
MIKE TAIBBI: Pete showed us more evidence of the changes: islands in what was once a freshwater lake now adorned with mangrove stands and other saltwater plant life, canals, once narrow ribbons dug by developers, now, due to erosion and the higher tides, hundreds of feet wide.
He brought us to spots where the land is slowly drowning. These mangroves now dying in the water used to be on dry land even at the highest tides. Not anymore, though, not as the saltwater moves inland.
And inland is where ecologists like Dr. Tiffany Troxler and her researchers are measuring the effects of sea level rise on crucial marsh grasses.
TIFFANY TROXLER, Florida International University: Historically, what we had here was a freshwater marsh. But we have got increasing sea level rise and we have reduced freshwater flow through the system. And that has the effect of making freshwater marshes salty.
MIKE TAIBBI: Among her team’s unnerving findings, a phenomenon called peat collapse caused in part by saltwater intrusion, the widespread breakdown of the once thick layer of peat soil needed to support the sturdy vegetation of a freshwater habitat.
SHAWN ABRAHAMS, Research Intern: If you look at some of these saw grass, you can tell where there roots are much higher. That’s where the soil used to be. But now the soil level has decreased dramatically.
MIKE TAIBBI: The combination of less soil and less aboveground habitat not only squeezes the prospects for the hundreds of plant and animal species that have flourished here. The Everglades’ human neighbors are threatened too, less freshwater being filtered for domestic consumption — some wells on the coast of South Florida are now contaminated by saltwater — and less protection against the region’s frequent storms, like Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
MAN: Neighborhoods near the Everglades were underwater.
DR. TIFFANY TROXLER: These freshwater wetlands are converting to open ponds of water. And the more open water we have, the less we are able to sustain the potential impacts from storms that affect us coming from the Gulf of Mexico.
MIKE TAIBBI: Florida’s Governor Rick Scott is a climate change skeptic, though he denied recent reports that some state officials were banned from using the terms climate change and global warming in their official correspondence.
Still, in Florida, there’s growing public support to do more: more study and more control of the places where saltwater meets fresh. There’ve been some success stories, like this small dam.
PETE FREZZA: What it did was block the saltwater moving in from the Gulf of Mexico from entering the more brackish water interior zone. So, we actually saw an increase in freshwater fish species.
MIKE TAIBBI: And a $10 billion federal and state program in place for a decade is the cornerstone of a long-range effort to redirect freshwater back into the wetlands to strengthen the barrier to saltwater intrusion, but this plan still awaits full funding.
Many experts fear that, if nothing is done, all this could end up under saltwater by the end of this century, the Everglades as we know it gone, along with the source of drinking water for millions and a way of life for many.
MARK GILMAN: The Everglades are the heart and soul of what we do. It’s not just catching fish. It’s going back there, seeing the wildlife, seeing the bird life. It’s the full experience. It’s everything.
MIKE TAIBBI: As for Pete Frezza, he goes out every day, calling to his favorite birds. This one’s for a yellow warbler. And he remains hopeful, hopeful that, if we can get it right, the warblers, dolphins and his beloved spoonbills can keep coming back, for a meal or for a breeding season and for a good while longer.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Mike Taibbi in the Florida Everglades.