Episode 4: Neverending Restoration
Everglades restoration is based on historical ecological trends in the river of grass, but south Florida’s climate is changing. Can the Everglades be saved? (Hint: It will take a while.)
We explore this in the final episode of DRAINED, a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, about the massive plan to save the Everglades. WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green wades into the controversy around one of the most ambitious environmental restoration efforts ever undertaken.
Listen by clicking on the player above or read the transcript below.
PHILIP TIPPING: “There is the weevil there. He’s kind of a gray-brown. He’s freezing up. If he sees your shadow he drops, as I said earlier.
“It’s kind of a nondescript weevil. Nothing fancy. He blends in very, very well with the background.”
AMY GREEN: Between his fingers Philip Tipping holds the long narrow leaves of a weakened tree. Tipping is dressed in a blue shirt and khaki pants and wearing a floppy canvas hat. On one leaf is the weevil, an insect so small I can hardly see it in the midday sunlight.
PHILIP TIPPING: “To me, that’s the hero of the biocontrol-of-melaleuca story in Florida.
“He’s got some chevrons on his back. But now he’s starting to move. Pretty soon he’s gonna, he might fly. I’m gonna put him right back on the tree, though. He still has some eating to do.”AMY GREEN: I’m Amy Green.
From WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, this is DRAINED — a podcast series about the massive plan to save the Everglades.
Episode 4, “Neverending restoration.”
The river of grass, even in its reduced state, remains the nation’s largest subtropical wilderness. It alights the imagination as a veritable Garden of Eden, with creeping vegetation and reptilian, other-worldly creatures like the Burmese python, a snake that is among the largest on Earth measuring 23 feet or more in length and weighing 200 pounds.
But some of these plants and animals, like the python, do not belong in the Everglades. They are invasive.
PHILIP TIPPING: “These trees do not look very good. They’ve been chewed up pretty good.”
AMY GREEN: Few invasive plants of the Everglades are more infamous than the melaleuca, a tall and narrow tree from Australia that can grow as high as 65 feet, with curling, peeling bark and an aroma of Eucalyptus.
PHILIP TIPPING: “My name is Philip Tipping. I’m the research leader here at the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory.
“When this tree invades, it turns basically marshland, all kinds of, any habitat you want to mention including just sawgrass prairies, into forests of melaleuca. It utterly transformed the landscape, changed all the burn cycles. It affected nutrient levels. It affected wildlife. It out-competed other plants.”
AMY GREEN: The melaleuca was introduced in south Florida a century ago as an ornamental and also because the tree was believed to be thirsty enough that it would help drain the Everglades – a living embodiment of humankind’s conquest of the river of grass.
PHILIP TIPPING: “You can see they’re scoring the leaves here, just removing the plant tissue.”
AMY GREEN: Today the melaleuca would be easy to dismiss as yet another weed of the Everglades if its resilience wasn’t so amazing. A little Roundup here will not do the trick. Chop the tree down, and it grows right back. Burn it, and a single tree can release up to 20 million seeds. Poison it, and its seedlings sprout again. The tree has no natural predators here.
PHILIP TIPPING: “You can see there’s also adult feeding where you see in the leaves the sort of brown lines, where these weevils have just come through and drilled holes through it.”
AMY GREEN: Tipping is part of the first and only Everglades restoration project to reach completion: a multi-agency effort to control invasive plant species like the melaleuca that threaten to transform the river of grass into something else.
PHILIP TIPPING: “Plus, they’re also laying eggs on it. There’s a little brown speck on the end of the leaf. That’s actually the egg.”
AMY GREEN: To do this the scientists are employing not machetes or poisons but tiny insects, like this weevil.
PHILIP TIPPING: “The insects have forced the plant to make a decision to either produce the leaves that have been destroyed by those insects, or to produce more seed.”
AMY GREEN: I met Tipping in September outside his research lab near Fort Lauderdale among rows of melaleucas his team was experimenting on.
PHILIP TIPPING: “And so what happens, each tree doesn’t produce as much seed. And as a result, the plant is less invasive.
“Seed production in the melaleuca is reduced as much as 99%. The rate of growth is half what it normally is.
“And so the melaleuca has really now been in retrograde, and it’s considered one of the biggest success stories of biocontrol in the natural world, in native systems.”
FRED SKLAR: “We sit down every Tuesday at 11 o’clock. And we go over the entire system. We look at places where there might be a fish kill due to low oxygen, to where there’s not enough water. And we make decisions within the legal framework of managing the system.”
AMY GREEN: Today what remains of the Everglades hardly functions as a natural system. Running the machine are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District, men and women like the district’s Fred Sklar who hold in their grip the river of grass’ lifeblood water.
FRED SKLAR: “The legal framework is something that most people don’t realize, that managing the system is rule-based. That we have rules at which we open structures and close structures, and it took decades to develop these rules.”
AMY GREEN: To answer the question of this podcast series – Twenty years later, how is Everglades restoration going? – we have to acknowledge it no longer is possible to bring back the river of grass to its pre-drainage state. By now the region is too developed, with millions of people living here, and most of us are happy with modern conveniences like flood control and a dedicated drinking water supply.
A reincarnation of an untouched Everglades is not the mission of restoration, and we’ve already talked about other goals like better water quality, a more natural flow and more water storage. And while the Everglades never will be completely restored, there has been progress, says Charles Lee of Audubon Florida.
CHARLES LEE: “We’ve got accomplishments, whether it’s the completion of the Kissimmee restoration project, which is on schedule to be completed very soon, restoring well over 30,000 acres of wetlands in the Kissimmee watershed. There are remarkable achievements that are happening.
“The fact that as much of the agricultural area has been turned back into natural Everglades plants in the stormwater treatment areas and water storage areas, and in the fact that even though, you know, I can criticize the water quality as not getting cleaner faster. Nonetheless, it is much cleaner than when we started out on that project.
“And now we have a new governor in Gov. DeSantis, who appears to be all in in favor of Everglades restoration.”
AMY GREEN: And that’s great! But the Everglades are far from saved. Perhaps the most poignant sign of trouble is found in the iconic alligator.
AMY GREEN: That’s the groan of an alligator as the animal is brought aboard an airboat in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge outside of West Palm Beach. I was in that airboat along with the alligator and two biologists to report on the animals’ plight a few years back.
The biologists roped the alligator around its neck and then let the animal thrash in its death roll until it was exhausted.
Then they secured its snout with electrical tape and brought it aboard. The alligator measured about six feet long.
Speaking of other-worldly creatures, the alligator certainly seems like an animal from a distant past with its armored, lizard-like body, muscular tail and powerful jaws, and it is. The species is more than 150 million years old, having survived the mass extinction that claimed its contemporaries at the time, the dinosaurs.
Alligators are a symbol of the Everglades in part because scientists have designated them so. In the Everglades, alligators are considered an indicator species, monitored as a measure of the watershed’s well-being. Scientists concentrate on ecological indicators because it would be impossible for them to monitor every animal and plant in an ecosystem all the time.
And in the Everglades, alligators are not doing great. They weigh 80% of what they should. They grow more slowly, reproduce less and die younger than other alligators.
What the alligators and other ecological indicators of the Everglades are telling us is that 20 years into restoration, there’s still a lot to do.
There’s another problem. When Everglades restoration was drafted, the plan was based on historical ecological trends in the river of grass. But as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine observed in 2018 in its latest congressionally mandated review of the progress, Florida’s climate is changing.
STEVE DAVIS: “We didn’t have enough scientific information as to how things were changing. We knew sea levels were rising, the rate of sea level rise was increasing. But those kinds of information were not incorporated into the modeling to determine which projects would be most important, or those that may not be as important because sea level rise might overwhelm the benefits.”
AMY GREEN: Steve Davis of the Everglades Foundation says rising temperatures are stressing the Everglades’ landscape and wildlife.
STEVE DAVIS: “The hotter the water gets, the more it affects their physiology. Just like we go outside, I start sweating in a matter of seconds. It affects the physiology of these organisms, to the point where they become stressed if it’s if it’s too hot.”
AMY GREEN: Temperatures and rainfalls are deviating from historical patterns. Patches of the Everglades literally are collapsing, as we heard in the first episode, as sea level rise pressures freshwater marshes. Saltwater mangroves are moving inland, replacing the sawgrass. Sea water also is creeping into the underground aquifer, threatening the drinking water supply.
Scientists believe restoration can make the Everglades more resilient, as more freshwater can help hold back the encroaching saltwater.
STEVE DAVIS: “We know that south Florida could be much drier because as it gets hotter, you get more water evaporating off the landscape back to the atmosphere. And so building that storage helps to hold onto the water when we do get it and use it as best we can for our water supply in south Florida.”
AMY GREEN: Across the globe climate change represents a challenge for restoration work. The problem in the Everglades is that the effort is so complex and costly, and there is not enough water storage to meet even immediate needs much less those of the future.
That concept of adaptive management that we’ve already talked about gives engineers room to adapt as the situation evolves. In its latest report, the National Academies called for – in the scientists’ words – a “midcourse assessment” that would take into account climate change, which the scientists said had been neglected in the planning up to that point.
The scientists said that at recent funding rates, construction on congressionally authorized projects alone will continue for at least another 65 years, putting their completion date well beyond 2080. The scientists said the projects need to be adapted for the Everglades of the future.
Let’s stop here for a minute. The scientists said construction on congressionally authorized projects alone will not be complete until at least 2080 – nearly 100 years after Everglades restoration was signed into law.
Let’s remember the restoration was envisioned as about a 30-year effort. It should be almost done by now.
This means the projects will not be complete within the lifetimes of many of today’s Floridians for whom the Everglades represent their most important freshwater resource.
AMY GREEN: “You mentioned it took 10 years to put someone on the moon. CERP has been going on for twice that amount of time. Why is it taking so long? Do you think it is working?”
Again, just as a reminder, CERP is the acronym for the government’s massive Everglades restoration program.
CHARLES LEE: “I do think CERP is working, and I think that the major thing that could expedite CERP would be more funding.”
Lee brought up a state plan approved in 2019 for an expansion of the Florida Turnpike.
CHARLES LEE: “Interestingly if you look at the money that’s involved in that, the Legislature just sort of at the drop of the hat said, ‘Oh yes, well, we’ll go ahead with 330 miles of turnpike.
“You know, you’re looking at something like $20 to $25 billion – with a B – to build that. And, you know, if you look at the amount of money that is being put toward CERP, it is in the billions. But it’s in the comparatively low billions. And when you consider the fact that the entire hydrologic future of south Florida is at stake, one would hope ultimately that more urgency and more money would be invested in it.
“But with that said, in the history of environmental matters in the United States, to my knowledge CERP dwarfs the investment that has been made on any one project anywhere within the United States.
“And so I think that for all of the negatives that can be lobbed at CERP, the reality is that in the political environment that we are in – and recognizing that CERP is not going to be the project of one presidential administration or one gubernatorial administration in the country or in the state – I think the fact that it has held together and that the political basis of support for it has not only held together but has grown, is a tremendous achievement.
AMY GREEN: “Do you think that the delay and the lack of funding, do you think those things are failures of CERP?”
AMY GREEN: Here’s Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District.
FRED SKLAR: “I don’t think it’s a failure. But, you know, it’s hard for someone like me to answer a question like that when I’ve dedicated pretty much my life to it. It would imply that my work is a failure.
AMY GREEN: Charles Lee of Audubon Florida.
CHARLES LEE: “Space travel, to the degree we accomplished it going to the moon and back, was a cinch when you compare it to the complexities of the hydrology of the Everglades.”
AMY GREEN: That’s probably an overstatement — since the Apollo program cost, in today’s dollars, more than $150 billion.
Everglades restoration, by contrast, is projected to cost $17 billion dollars, although the plan remains one of the world’s most ambitious efforts at ecological restoration.
The multiple federal and state agencies involved, as well as more than 60 environmental groups, say we’ve never seen anything like this. The plan’s scale and ambitions, they say, are unprecedented.
But have we? In Florida? The restoration bears a striking resemblance to the replumbing that came before it — a massive man-vs-nature project. And while that project was aimed at taking control of the expansive wetlands once and for all, this new effort is designed to revive the river of grass and secure the region’s drinking water for future generations.
A half-century ago, we thought we’d conquered nature. But what that enormous project really did was imperil our future — putting at risk the region’s drinking water. Now we have a new, even more enormous plan intended to fix what we broke.
Maybe it can’t be fixed, not in a real way. The restoration was supposed to be close to finished by now — but it’s clear today we face decades of more work to reengineer the Everglades.
Only one project – a program to control invasive plant species like the melaleuca – is complete.
The most ambitious parts aimed at the fundamental goals we’ve talked about — flow, storage and water quality — are not done.
Remember those 300 wells proposed around Lake Okeechobee — the ones where water managers would inject millions of gallons underground? They are not likely to happen as planned. The number of wells believed to be achievable at this point is about 180, and critical questions remain about whether the wells might do more harm than good, as they would provide a path for surface water contaminated with fertilizers and other runoff, to be injected directly into Florida’s sensitive aquifer.
Restoring the Everglades is really a challenge of how to manage billions of gallons of water with no place to go. The truth is to this day after two decades and billions of dollars invested, we still do not know how to address this problem.
The story of Florida is inextricably tied to the Everglades. Our effort to drain the river of grass, to bring Mother Nature to heel here, allowed for the state’s explosive growth — making it today the third-most populous state in the nation. When we drained the Everglades to make way for agriculture and the vast concrete jungles of central and south Florida, we did not anticipate the consequences of our actions. We didn’t realize we’d put our drinking water at risk. We didn’t realize we’d poison our environment. We didn’t realize we’d threaten the future livability of our state.
Now, we’re at it again — another massive man-vs-nature plan in the Everglades whose ecological consequences we can’t predict.
Maybe we can do it. Maybe with billions of dollars and decades of time, we can save the Everglades and Florida’s future.
Or maybe we should admit at long last that Mother Nature and the Everglades cannot be conquered.
This has been DRAINED.
AMY GREEN: DRAINED is a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s reported and hosted by me, Amy Green, and edited by Trevor Aaronson and Matthew Peddie. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. Mac Dula, Jenny Babcock and Ryan Ellison provided additional production help. Cliff Tumetel also contributed. Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Everglades and its restorations efforts, look for my book Moving Water, to be published in March 2021 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Thanks for listening.
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