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What’s stopping the vulnerable Everglades from being healed?

March 29, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
The Florida Everglades are critical to the survival of local birds, reptiles and millions of people. As urban development has increased, the incredibly rare and bio-diverse habitat has become vulnerable to rising sea water encroachment. Billions of dollars have been spent on restoration, but both science and politics have made efforts more complicated. Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Billions of dollars have been spent trying to restore the Florida Everglades. But there are concerns that those efforts are not working.

Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino reports for our weekly report on the Leading Edge of science.

EVELYN GAISER, Florida International University: This is the microbial community that forms the basis of the food web of the Everglades.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Scientist Evelyn Gaiser has spent her entire adult life getting her feet wet, studying the microscopic animals and plants living in the Florida Everglades.

EVELYN GAISER: There are so many different types of habitats that occur in it. There’s so many different ways that water flows through it, both above ground and below ground.

DUARTE GERALDINO: That complexity hides a lot of secrets.

EVELYN GAISER: The ecosystem is changing.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Gaiser runs the Coastal Everglades Ecological Research Program. She and her students have found previously unknown life forms here.

EVELYN GAISER: They have not been discovered in science, so my students actively name species.

DUARTE GERALDINO: This incredibly rare and biodiverse habitat is also critical to the survival of birds, reptiles and ultimately millions of people.

EVELYN GAISER: It is a real lifeblood, not only for the organisms that we see here, but for us as well. It’s our source of fresh drinking water, of the potable water that we use and the water that we irrigate our farm fields with.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Over the last century, the natural footprint of the Everglades was reduced by almost half to make room for roads, homes and farms. To do that, swampland had to be drained and freshwater was channeled out to the coasts, leaving the southern region vulnerable to rising seawater encroachment.

EVELYN GAISER: The saltwater is creeping in.

DUARTE GERALDINO: OK, so you’re saltwater. I’m freshwater.

EVELYN GAISER: That’s right. And so there’s that kind of push-pull in the wet and dry season that would happen naturally. When you don’t have enough freshwater moving in, the saltwater is just going to move in, in, in, in.

DUARTE GERALDINO: And rising sea levels, accelerated by global warming, mean forests of mangroves are moving far inland, killing off the natural habitat.

In 2000, federal lawmakers implemented an ambitious plan to restore the original essence of the Everglades. After decades of commercial and agricultural development, the U.S. government was in effect trying to broker a deal between development and nature. But nature is fighting back, humbling engineers and threatening the drinking water of roughly eight million people.

HOWARD GONZALES, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: So, what you see behind you is a water control structure that’s going to manage the water.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Howard Gonzales is the engineer in charge of implementing the plan, which is officially called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP.

It’s a plan designed to build canals, bridges and reservoirs to ensure ample drinking water, protect communities from flooding, and to clean and- control water flow to the Southern Everglades.

When it was signed into law, it contained 68 different components at a cost of $8 billion. That price tag has now more than doubled, and not a single project is complete yet. Part of the problem is, there’s still so much about the Everglades we don’t understand.

HOWARD GONZALES: The science has evolved, and we continue to adaptively manage our program to meet those new science understandings.

DUARTE GERALDINO: And yet Gonzales says the projects are still proceeding according to the original timetable.

HOWARD GONZALES: We have nine projects under construction. We have at least six of our foundation projects that were started back in the mid-’90s that are nearing completion. When you look at those in total, it shows that we’re making great progress.

DUARTE GERALDINO: The Tamiami Highway is one example of that progress. For nearly 90 years, it acted like a dam, preventing freshwater from flowing south to the Everglades National Park.

Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers elevated a one-mile section of the road and is currently working to raise two more miles, so water can flow more freely.

And the state has also built some stormwater treatment areas, which use plants to scrub clean agricultural water before it flows into the Everglades.

But journalist Michael Grunwald, author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise,” says the plan has not accomplished its main goal.

MICHAEL GRUNWALD, Author, “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise”: The real thrust of CERP is supposed to be about storing water. And, well, we’re 17 years in, and they still haven’t built any storage.

DUARTE GERALDINO: No storage?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: They haven’t built any storage. They aren’t planning to build enough storage. And there’s no plan B.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Right now, the main place to store water is Lake Okeechobee. But when water levels get too high, managers are forced to release the untreated water, sending it out to the east and west coasts.

Last summer, that dirty water caused unprecedented algae blooms on Florida’s lakes and coastlines. It was so bad, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency.

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: It’s covered in this flocculant glop that looks like guacamole and smells like crap. And that’s not just an environmental problem. That’s an economic catastrophe for that area.

DUARTE GERALDINO: So, is this Nature fighting back now?

MICHAEL GRUNWALD: Mother Nature gets the last word.

DUARTE GERALDINO: About the only thing as complex as the science associated with the Everglades is its politics. There is big money, especially sugar money, attached to these lands.

PAUL ORSENIGO, Orsenigo Farms: It’s $2.5 billion of economic activity.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Billion with a B.

Billion with a B — in Palm Beach County.

DUARTE GERALDINO: Paul Orsenigo farms lettuce, vegetables and sugarcane near Belle Glade. That’s the fertile area south of Lake Okeechobee that was once part of the Everglades.

PAUL ORSENIGO: We have been blessed with some of the best soil types in the whole world on planet Earth. And a productive, successful society and nation, if you looked at history, is based on productive soil and farmland.

DUARTE GERALDINO: But farms like Orsenigo’s may become part of the storage solution. To prevent another toxic algae bloom, a group of state lawmakers is proposing the restoration timetable be sped up and that farmers give up their land, so a 60,000-acre reservoir can be built years ahead of the original CERP schedule. The price tag is $2.4 billion.

PAUL ORSENIGO: I think there are better solutions than buying and taking more productive farmland.

STEPHEN BASORE, TKM-Bengard Farms: So, we have about 85 people that work at this particular facility.

DUARTE GERALDINO: STEPHEN BASORE OWNS A FARM AND VEGETABLE PROCESSING PLANT.

STEPHEN BASORE: Every time that agricultural land has been taken out of production, it gets a lot more challenging for my family’s operation.

DUARTE GERALDINO: He employs up to 1,000 people at peak season.

STEPHEN BASORE: If you take agriculture out of here, you’re basically just wiping all these jobs out, and there’s nothing to come in and replace it.

DUARTE GERALDINO: He says Florida farmers have already given up 100,000 acres of land that was used to reestablish wetlands, and they shouldn’t be asked to give more for a system that is not fully understood.

Steve Davis, an ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, is sympathetic to the loss of farm jobs, but warns the state will take an even bigger economic hit if the problem is not fixed.

STEPHEN DAVIS, Everglades Foundation: We’re a tourist-based economy in Florida. If people are canceling their summer vacation trip to these coastal areas, restaurants, hotels, a much larger sector of our economy is being affected.

DUARTE GERALDINO: He says the science is clear: More freshwater has to be stored and channeled south.

STEPHEN DAVIS: This is the mix of habitats you would find in more of a restored or natural area of the Everglades.

DUARTE GERALDINO: He took us deep into the marsh, where alligators are king, to show us how if, given the right conditions, this incredibly rare system can heal itself.

STEPHEN DAVIS: It’s almost like your immune system. If you get a viral infection, your body has a tendency to fight it off, and will continue to fight it off as long as it can. And the resilience of the Everglades is very similar to that.

We see the system improves under marginal conditions. If we can only restore that flow of freshwater back to the south, we know that we will see a significant boost in the health of the system.

DUARTE GERALDINO: A system that is critical to the biological and economic health of the entire state of Florida.

From the Everglades, I’m Duarte Geraldino for the PBS NewsHour.

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