COMMENTARY: The Everglades Critical Turning Point

The historic restoration of the Everglades must get moving now

The Florida panther calls the Everglades home, and is one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
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The Florida Everglades—America's largest subtropical wilderness—has shrunk to less than half its former size. Wading bird populations in Everglades National Park have plummeted by over 90 percent.

Sixty-eight species of plants and animals, including the Florida panther, American crocodile, wood stork, snail kite, and Cape Sable seaside sparrow are threatened or endangered with extinction. For years now, the Everglades ecosystem and within in it, the first national park established in the U.S. due to its unique biodiversity, have been on life support. The patient is dying.

This well-documented devastation is a result of the federally-mandated Army Corps of Engineers-designed system of 1,400 miles of canals and levees constructed to control flooding and provide water supply for South Florida. The water entering the canal system from Lake Okeechobee, polluted with agricultural runoff and high levels of mercury, is pumped down the peninsula and through ocean outfall pipes along the southeast coast, creating an overabundance of nutrients causing algae blooms smothering offshore coral reefs and seagrass beds. Recreational and commercial fisheries continue to decline because fish and crustaceans cannot breed as successfully in the coastal areas along Florida and Biscayne bays.

The Calvary came to the rescue in the form of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which was passed by Congress in 2000. It was a bold step—the most ambitious ecological restoration program ever undertaken in the history of the world! But during the past eight years, there have been many missteps.

The good news is that on December 9, 2008 the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District voted to endorse an historic agreement to purchase 181,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corporation's land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for restoration.

The Everglades Coalition was in enthusiastic favor of this purchase, as a fundamental flaw in the restoration plan was a lack of land for storing and cleaning water to send south into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. Due to the tremendous loss of wetlands within the Everglades ecosystem, the system can no longer hold enough water during the wet season to then slowly deliver it further south during the dry season.

Water in the Everglades has been polluted with agricultural runoff and high levels of mercury.
© www.nps.gov

With the fortuitous development of U.S. Sugar unexpectedly offering to sell their land to the state, and South Florida Water Management District's vote in December 2008 to approve it, the historic restoration of the Everglades must begin now in earnest, and with federal support.

Without the new administration's backing, broken processes, funding shortfalls, and development pressures will continue to compete with restoration, all while the "Glades" and its inhabitants increasingly decline. A recent report by the National Research Council (NRC), an independent body directed by Congress to review restoration progress, found that, "CERP is bogged down in budgeting, planning, and procedural matters and is making only scant progress toward achieving restoration goals." Although some projects have begun construction, not one has been completed. Even worse, Congress has not given any funding for construction of CERP projects.

On January 8-11, the Everglades Coalition will hold its 24th annual conference in Miami. Hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association, the open-to-the-public conference will bring together leaders, elected officials, community and environmental activists, and the general public to discuss the opportunities and challenges in 2009 and beyond in efforts to restore this great "Wetland of International Importance." At the conference the hard work yet to be done will become very clear to all in attendance. Sessions will focus on topics such as growth management, political and public partnerships, endangered and invasive species, wildlife habitat, energy policies, and water quality. We urge you to join us at the Hilton Miami Downtown to learn more.

In leading the charge, Governor Crist and now the South Florida Water Management District have set a high bar. If their vision for the Everglades is to be successful, the state of Florida needs President-elect Obama and the federal government to sustain their commitment to a strong federal-state partnership.

The world is watching to gauge its success, both politically and ecologically. Will the Everglades—an International Biosphere Reserve, Unesco World Heritage Site, ecosystem found nowhere else on the planet, and place visited by people from all over the world, be rescued in time?

CONTACTS: Everglades Coalition

To have a registration form faxed or mailed to you, contact Pat Carr (954) 942-3113 or patriciacarr@evergladescoalition.org
For registration information, fees, and hotel information, contact Sara Fain, National Parks Conservation Association at 305-546-6689; sfain@npca.org
For event lodging: The Hilton Miami Downtown, (305) 374-0000.

SARA FAIN is national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition and Everglades Restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.