Everglades Restoration Plan: Ambitious and Slow

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Progress in restoring Florida’s Everglades, said to be the largest ecosystem restoration project in history, may be held back for another decade by numerous budget and procedural problems. Since the approval of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) by Congress in 2000, not one of the 60 proposed components of the plan have been completed, bringing serious concern for the continued loss of endangered ecosystems and dwindling public support.

“The process is a mess,” says Sara Fain, National Co-Chair of the Everglades Coalition. “All the regulations governing CERP projects need to be re-evaluated given what we’ve learned over the last eight years…We’ve recognized that ecosystem restoration doesn’t neatly fit into a box made for planning a civil works or flood protection project.”

Nicknamed the “River of Grass,” the Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness remaining in the US. It has been recognized as a World Heritage Site and for its role in sustaining diverse species. In the late 1880s, efforts to drain the land for development set the marsh off on a slow decline and increased its vulnerability to fire. Earlier this year, almost 33,000 acres burned in Everglades National Park. The marsh supports at least 68 species listed as threatened or endangered, with some remaining only inside the national park. Almost three million acres of these iconic wetlands have been drained, threatening a $20 billion tourism industry, more than 365,000 jobs, and the only source of safe clean drinking water for South Florida, according to the Everglades Trust.

The Everglades plan has been burdened by approval processes at both state and federal levels, meeting success only recently. In 2007, Congress finally passed legislation authorizing three projects to go through. Of these, the closest to fruition is a project to restore the wetlands in Indian River Lagoon (estimated to cost $1.2 billion). Picayune Strand, a scam housing development of partially developed swampland that largely failed in the 1960s, will have its canals and roads removed to restore water flow across the tract. A recent proposal by the state to purchase 187,000 acres of land from the US Sugar Corp. will also allow storage of water over large areas of land.

Funding remains a key obstacle to many of the restoration plans. In November, the U.S. Sugar Corp. deal was modified to 181,000 acres, reducing the price tag by about $4 million, and allowing the sugar company to retain its assets on site – a compromise resulting from severe budget strains. Even so, the cost of the full restoration plan remains projected at $10-12 billion, and is expected to grow with more delays.

“Unfortunately, the Everglades have not been a priority to the Bush administration or to the previous governor of Florida, Jeb Bush,” says Fain. “But the current governor, Charlie Crist, is making efforts. The state has repeatedly put money forward to start the projects, but the federal government has to do its part.”

A key step is to revise the federal approval process to multiyear budgets to release more funding, and also review multiple projects at once. “A project-by-project analysis is fundamentally flawed…the reason we need to do this comprehensively is because each of the projects alone does not restore the Everglades, and has difficulty standing alone in its individual benefit to the ecosystem.”

If such changes occur, CERP will have numerous implications, not only for Florida. “Restoration of the Everglades will be an example to follow nationwide,” says Fain. “We know that there are people throughout the world watching us. At the same time, we don’t know all the answers and may make some missteps along the way. It will be difficult, but not insurmountable.”