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Podcast explores effort to restore Florida Everglades

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

In South Florida, 9 million people rely on the Everglades to absorb floodwater during storms and provide drinking water. But it's also an ecosystem in crisis. Bright Lit Place, a new podcast from WLRN, tells the story of the long-running effort to undo the damage to the Everglades and help us survive in a warmer world. Here's an excerpt from host Jenny Staletovich

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: As a boy, Michael Frank lived on a tree island surrounded by miles of sawgrass in the Everglades.

MICHAEL FRANK: Be careful now. There's some holes. Lime rock underneath, but then again, there's holes. a

STALETOVICH: Islands like his once dotted the vast, shallow river of grass that spilled over the banks of Lake Okeechobee and flowed south towards the place where we're walking, across the sawgrass marshes and south to the tip of Florida. The marsh has formed a bowl between the coastal ridge along South Florida's east coast and the cypress and mangrove swamps to the west, before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay.

FRANK: If you feel that soft spot, there's a hole in the lime rock.

STALETOVICH: Frank is showing me how to find water in the dry season by digging a hole. It's kind of like a well.

FRANK: What you would do, you go ahead and make your hole. You know, put the mud on the side. This way, you know where it is (inaudible). And during the dry season, the only way you can get water is through that hole. And not only you. The rest of the animals would congregate at that hole. OK. You want to go further or...

STALETOVICH: Yeah. Yeah.

FRANK: My knees are gone. So that's how I got to just walk gently.

STALETOVICH: Frank's an old man now. He's a tribal elder with the Miccosukee Tribe. And the world he grew up in is mostly gone. The sprawling river was dammed up to make way for farms and a booming real estate market. This part of the Everglades is just a sliver of the tribe's ancestral homelands, making up the 75,000-acre Alligator Alley reservation here in the center of the Everglades. The tribe has a special name for it.

FRANK: (Non-English language spoken) - a bright lit place. It's like shining up. Look at that. Go ahead. Look at it. It's shining - the water - from the sun. (Non-English language spoken) means light. It's lit up.

STALETOVICH: Historically, the Everglades covered nearly 4,000 square miles, a river of grass 100 miles long and 40 miles across. Now only a fifth of that wilderness is left. The rest has been carved into pieces to provide a massive system for water supply and flood control. That infrastructure paved the way for modern South Florida. It's also what's now killing the Everglades. Too much water gets stored in some places. Other parts are dying of thirst.

FRANK: We have to live in accordance with nature and with the animals and the birds - but development. People want more land. People want more access from here to there. That comes first.

STALETOVICH: With climate change making natural events like hurricanes and wildfires worse, we now know that getting our natural systems like the Everglades to work again is more important than ever. But reversing the damage in the Everglades has been an epic fight. We're going to focus on the biggest effort yet - a sprawling, comprehensive Everglades restoration plan approved by Congress in 2000. It's often called CERP. The plan is like a giant puzzle, trying to reconnect the pieces of the Everglades, now divided by levees and canals and farms and cities. Originally, it was expected to cost just under $8 billion, split between the U.S. government and Florida. At the end of 20 years, more than 60 projects were supposed to save the wilderness. It could have also given Florida a head start on fighting climate change, but that's not what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STALETOVICH: Growing up, Frank's family lived on a tree island called High Land.

FRANK: And when one of my grandfather's friends told him, hey, there's an island over here which nobody ever lived, it's got a lot of trees, and it's high. And when the water is high, it never goes underwater. So that's when we moved from Custard Apple all the way to the island. And that's where I was born and most of our brothers and sisters.

STALETOVICH: The Everglades is where the tribe lived and sought refuge during multiple wars. There were more the tree islands then, and they were bigger. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all lived in airy chickees and farmed corn or raised pigs. But these days, the islands that are left are smaller. That's because the Bright Lit Place now sits in an area that's regularly flooded and hemmed in by levees. It's used to hold the water that replenishes South Florida's drinking water aquifer and to keep the coast from flooding. Instead of a wide river of grass flowing across ridges and slews, like corrugated cardboard, the water gets squeezed into canals and compartments, where it can remain unnaturally high.

FRANK: My island is always about a foot under water every year. But during that, like, a heavy hurricane season, it's about 2 or 3 feet under water every year. All the big trees, the reason why we went to the island - because there was big trees. They don't exist no more. They're all dead. They're all dead.

STALETOVICH: Frank's literally watching his homeland wash away.

FRANK: My way of life, living in the Everglades, it's gone. It's beautiful. But it's just a skeleton compared to what it used to be.

TIM KLEIN: Oh, wow. Nice loop. Best cast yet. Oh, fish on. Put it back out there.

STALETOVICH: About 60 miles away, the opposite is happening in Florida Bay and the Upper Keys. Instead of too much water, the southern tip of the Everglades is getting too little.

KLEIN: Put it back out there. Cast it back out there. Quick little strips. Keep coming. Keep coming.

STALETOVICH: We're in Florida Bay with fishing guide Tim Klein.

KLEIN: So it's just an ugly cycle, you know. And, you know, we desperately need more consistent water.

STALETOVICH: This is where Tim Klein grew up, on a necklace of islands hanging off South Florida, surrounded by some of the best fishing flats in the world. Acres of seagrass meadows carved up by channels are inhabited by bonefish, tarpon and permit, the holy trinity of saltwater fly fishing. Years on the flats made Klein one of the best guides in the Keys or anywhere. But here, too little fresh water is reaching the bay. It now gets about half of what it received a century ago. That means in the dry season, the ocean can get too salty. That damages seagrass and drives away fish, and that is killing Klein's way of life.

KLEIN: You know, like, the most famous bonefish spots in our backyard is what we call Downtown - Shell Key and Lignumvitae. The grass on those flats are, you know, like - 70% of the grass is gone. And that's where, you know, the bonefish fed and stuff. So we - the thing that we've lost, you know, starting, you know, 10, 12 years ago is the - are big bonefish.

STALETOVICH: These days, the champion flats guide spends more of his time leading eco tours.

KLEIN: Take a short ride and then you enter into the Everglades National Park. You just go into just heaven, in my eyes. I got all new clientele now because I've been doing this for - what? - 38 years now. And the people I've fished in the past are just not here anymore, you know.

STALETOVICH: Restoration promised to deliver enough fresh water to help revive the seagrass meadows, where bonefish use their tough snouts to hunt for shrimp and crabs. It still might, but all the while, Florida keeps growing, with more housing sprouting up along the Everglades' borders. Climate change driving up sea levels and creating hotter conditions just compounds the stress. The quandary here isn't so different from other parts of the country, where we're trying to undo the damage from turning nature into infrastructure without considering the consequences.

LIMBONG: Bright Lit Place is a podcast from WLRN and the NPR network, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It's hosted by Jenny Staletovich. Find full episodes along with photos and maps at brightlitplace.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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