Tuesday, June 15

The Everglades are dying. An alliance between Biden and the Republicans could save them | Florida

For years, environmental groups warned that the Florida Everglades, a vast subtropical reserve of 1.5 million acres (607,000 hectares), could be doomed to extinction. Agricultural pollution, saltwater intrusion and rampant real estate development had rendered the waterways toxic and the state’s iconic environmental landmark was slowly drowned to death. Maybe until now.

A decades-long Everglades restoration effort is finally seeing renewed optimism thanks to a cast of unlikely champions: Florida State Republicans. In April, Ron DeSantis, the governor, signed an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a huge $ 3.4 billion reservoir west of Palm Beach, which would help restore freshwater flow to the Everglades. Other state-funded projects to revitalize the region’s delicate ecosystem are already months ahead of schedule, DeSantis said.

And now, the Everglades have a new ally in the White House. Last week Joe Biden included $ 350 million in your 2022 budget proposal to apply to environmental restoration efforts in South Florida, an increase of $ 100 million from the previous year. But will it be enough? Florida’s Congressional delegation, led by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, had previously requested more than double that amount in federal assistance, while local advocates argued that the price should be closer to $ 3 billion in four years. .

There is also the potential for Congress to add more federal dollars to Biden’s proposal, especially now that five members of the Florida congressional delegation are serving on appropriations committees, said Chauncey Goss, chairman of the governing district board. Florida Water Authority, which oversees the state’s Everglades infrastructure projects. .

“The $ 725 million would be better, but I’m not going to laugh at the $ 350 million,” Goss said. “It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it really depends on Congress.”

Still, the funding proposed by Biden is substantial, Goss added, and will allow the Army Corps to begin work on the federal part of the reservoir project, such as building new canals from Lake Okeechobee. “This will definitely keep the ball moving across the field,” he said.

An alligator floats in an algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee on April 26.
An alligator floats in an algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee on April 26. Photograph: Joe Cavaretta / AP

Efforts to restore the unique ecosystem of the Everglades depend on Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater body located near Palm Beach County. The lake has been used as a dumping ground for agricultural land pollutants for several decades, allowing high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrous from fertilizers to seep into the soil. During heavy rains and storms, runoff from contaminated soil flows into dozens of channels that intersect and end in Lake Okeechobee. To prevent the lake from overflowing and breaking its levee during storms, polluted water is often released into rivers that flow into the ocean and the Everglades.

The goal is to treat the dirty water that overflows from Lake Okeechobee so that when it reaches the Everglades, the water is mostly free of the nutrients that cause toxic algal blooms. It is currently being built to create a network of salt marshes spanning 6,500 acres (2,630 hectares) made up of non-native plants that act as a natural filtration system to absorb fertilizing nutrients from polluted water, which will flow from the planned 10,500 acres. (4,250 hectares) reservoir that will store excess water that accumulates in Lake Okeechobee during the rainy months of the year.

John Kominoski, professor of biological sciences at Florida International University’s Institute of the Environment, says the reservoir project will likely play a critical role in alleviating overflows in Lake Okeechobee during Florida’s rainy season, which will be used to replenish the Everglades.

“This reservoir is very important to the restoration of the Everglades,” he added. “It will allow more dirty water to be cleaned and it will hold more water for longer rather than throwing it into the sea.”

Still, environmental advocates remain divided on whether Everglades restoration projects are enough. Some are concerned that the reservoir and salt marshes will not have a significant impact in reversing decades of pollution and water diversion. Others are concerned that restoration could be disrupted by recent attempts to bring industrial and commercial activities closer to the ecosystem. Eve Samples, executive director of advocacy group Friends of the Everglades, said the 17,000-acre (6,880-hectare) footprint of the reservoir and adjacent wetlands is not large enough to achieve the amount of water flow to keep the river healthy. by Grass. .

“When the project was first envisioned 20 years ago, it was in the 60,000-acre neighborhood,” said Samples. “In 2017, when we had toxic algae blooms on the east and west sides of the state, the project accelerated. But by the time the bill passed, the reservoir and wetland portion had been reduced to 17,000 acres. “

A key reason the reservoir was reduced in size was due to politics. The state legislature prohibited the South Florida water management district from using eminent domain to acquire sugar cane fields and farms. To make up for the lost acreage, state and federal environmental agencies built the 23-foot (7-meter) deep reservoir with 37-foot (11-meter) high retaining walls.

“This project is a shadow of what it was before,” said Samples. “It doesn’t look like anything in nature.”

A mangrove tunnel in Florida's Everglades National Park.
A mangrove tunnel in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Photography: Francisco Blanco / Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

Another key concern is the aggravated threat that climate change brings, says Kominoski. Climate changes in recent years have severely affected Florida’s transition from the dry season to the wet season, which generally begins in late April and lasts until mid-November. “Last year, the rainy season didn’t start until the end of May,” he said. “We are missing about a month of our rainy season window.”

As a result, mangroves and other plants that help filter pollutants are drying up and dying. “We need the water to flow so that the wetlands don’t dry out,” he said.

Jason Totoiu, senior attorney for the Southeast division of the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed, noting that restoration projects like the $ 3.4 billion reservoir and salt marshes can significantly increase the flow of freshwater to the Everglades as long as the Agricultural pollutants are filtered out effectively. Increasingly hot summers threaten large swaths of the Everglades, Totoiu said. “We are seeing an increasing amount of salt water that can drastically alter natural habitats,” he said. “Sea level rise could be a turning point there.”

The reservoir project and other Everglades infrastructure proposals are more than just revitalizing Florida’s most important ecosystem, added Julie Wraithmell, CEO of Audubon Florida. “It’s also about protecting our vibrant tourism economy, safe drinking water for all residents and visitors, and against rising sea levels,” he said. “With so many projects lined up, it makes sense to hit while the iron is hot.”

Fighting to save the Everglades has been a daunting endeavor for many decades, but Republican and Democratic elected officials at the local, state and federal levels are now at work, Wraithmell added.

“Whether you are on the far left or far right, everyone has a vested interest in dealing with the effects of climate change,” he said. “There is great reason for optimism.”


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