August 20, 2016
Common goals key to Everglades restoration
By Lonnie Howard
A little more than 15 years ago, an unlikely coalition of individuals, organizations and government entities came together to launch the largest and most ambitious environmental restoration project in the history of our nation – restoration of America’s Everglades. The diverse alliance included Republicans and Democrats, elected officials and regulators, federal, state, and local officials, farmers and environmentalists, businessmen and scientists.
Despite their differences, this group joined forces behind the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan because they all recognized the importance of restoration to Florida’s environment, economy, and quality of life. Returning a more natural flow of water to the famed River of Grass would revive the natural habitat, which is home to nearly 70 threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Restoring the vast wetland hydrology would also increase recharge to the Biscayne aquifer that serves as the primary source of drinking water to more than six million Floridians.
Florida led the way. In 2000, Florida enacted the Everglades Restoration Investment Act – a bill backed by a bipartisan majority in the Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Under the law, the state promised to pay 50% of the cost of restoration, and lawmakers backed that commitment with $2 billion in state and local funding to jumpstart restoration. That same year, Florida also enacted the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act, which provided $38 million to improve water quality in the state’s largest water body.
Soon after, the U.S. Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 with overwhelming bipartisan support – 394 to 14 in the House of Representatives and 81 to 1 in the Senate. In December of that year, Democratic President Bill Clinton, joined in the Oval Office by Bush, congressional leaders and environmental activists, signed the bill into law.
In the years that followed, restoration made steady progress. Florida has fulfilled its financial commitment with double the contributions made by the federal government to date. Restoration projects from the Kissimmee River to Biscayne Bay have been implemented to improve hydrology and water quality across the entire the Greater Everglades and coastal estuaries. More than 250,000 acres of sensitive environmental land has been acquired to advance restoration and nearly 60,000 acres of man-made marshes have been constructed to reduce phosphorus concentrations in water flowing into the Everglades. Large reservoirs, like the recently constructed 20 billion gallon A-1 Flow Equalization Basin, and pumping stations, like S-401 for the C-44 reservoir (which can move over 710 million gallons per day) that is under construction are used to move and store water in the right place at the right time.
Unfortunately, some activist groups are attempting to undermine the future of Everglades restoration. A campaign is underway to divert money and resources from critical projects to unnecessary land acquisition south of Lake Okeechobee. Scientists and engineers at state agencies and academic institutions have stated that, for many technical reasons, acquisition of these lands is not the best strategy for meeting restoration goals. The land acquisition effort targets farmers who have been instrumental in the success of Everglades restoration to date.
Last year, farmers cut phosphorus concentrations leaving their farmland by a record 79 percent. Because of improved farming practices, over the last 20 years the overall average annual amount of phosphorus entering the Everglades has been reduced by 56 percent, more than twice the required amount. Although phosphorus is naturally occurring in the muck soils south of the lake, an excess of the nutrient can alter the natural balance of the ecosystem, fueling the growth of vegetation.
The success of Everglades restoration proves that bold reform and significant infrastructure projects can be adopted and advanced when people with different perspectives come together behind a common goal. It would be disappointing, and even disastrous, if a small group of vocal activists derailed implementation of this critical environmental restoration project. Now more than ever, we need to reunite and renew our commitment to finish the job that was started nearly two decades ago – restoring a more natural flow of water to America’s Everglades and coastal estuaries through accelerated funding and completion of already planned and approved projects.
Lonnie Howard is a professional engineer and president of Johnson Engineering, Inc.