The Florida Everglades remains one of only three wetland areas designated “globally important” by UNESCO and the Ramsar convention, which aims to protect and preserve wetlands worldwide. Spanning the entire lower third of the Florida peninsula, the Everglades is vast and ever-changing. Likewise, the tale of the Everglades’ destruction and proposed environmental repair is also vast and ever-changing. The story details man’s ignorance of the natural world evolving into a dawning appreciation of its value, and culminates in a resolve to reverse decades of destruction.
Why the sudden resolve? Why the push for Everglades restoration now? What is different now than, say, ten years ago? An optimist would say the difference is that dawning appreciation for the value of the Everglades; wildlife the wetlands supports, the diversity of life, the ecology of the region, the area as an ecotourism attraction, perhaps. The publicity surrounding the restoration effort certainly promotes this angle. The cynic thinks otherwise. The cynic thinks a much more basic answer exists.
Long time, full-time residents of South Florida know the truth. Water sources are drying up. Water shortages, restrictions, and salt water intrusion of wells are facts of life. Population growth has nearly exceeded the water supply. The human population wasn’t such a pressing problem on the water supply ten years ago, before Everglades restoration became such a hot topic. It is a pressing problem now.
Fresh water is south Florida’s only water source and unfortunately, the Central and South Florida Project of 1948 worked too efficiently. That project installed the canals and levees to drain Florida and make it habitable to large populations. The Project transformed the state from lush swampland into a build-able tropical paradise.
Today, averages of 1.7 billion gallons of fresh water per day are wasted by way of the canals and levees. Most of the water never even penetrates into the underlying aquifers. The canal system diverts the water off of the land and discharges it into the ocean. On its path to the ocean, it travels down estuaries like the St. Lucie River. Here it disrupts salinity levels and causes fish kills, loss of sea grasses, and algae blooms.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, of which the purchase of land belonging to U.S. Sugar is a part, seeks to capture that fresh water that currently flows to the ocean unused. The water will be stored, cleaned, and redirected not only to the dying Everglades ecosystem but also to cities, farmers, and water supplies in South Florida. The CERP is the most ambitious, expensive, and comprehensive environmental restoration and repair project in history.
When first announced, the U.S. Sugar deal cost $1.75 billion and included the purchase of all of U.S. Sugar’s land (187,000 acres) and assets (mills, railroads, etc.). It was a monumental plan and a fairy tale, dream- come- true for the Everglades Restoration Plan and its supporters. The scope of the purchase stunned everyone, but many rejoiced. Months later, the plan shrank to a $1.34 billion purchase of land only.
Florida Governor Crist announced another revision on April 1, 2009. Now the State of Florida will purchase only 72,500 acres of land at a price of $533 million. That this purchase is merely downsized rather than dead is a cause for celebration. Sometimes you have to take what you can get. Florida can get the rest of what she needs later. Dwindling state and federal monetary resources in the face of the worldwide economic catastrophe caused the plan to be downsized. Hopefully when money becomes available, more land will be purchased.
The emphasis on the ecological impact of Everglades restoration makes great press for Governor Crist. He appears as a champion of the environmental movement and will no doubt reap the benefits of that moniker as he smooths the way towards a run for higher office. Doesn’t he look grand standing in front of a huge photo of the Everglades teeming with wildlife? Certainly the ecological and environmental benefits of wetlands preservation and restoration are wonderful side benefits to the plan. But buried in all the press reports is the notation that even the smaller land deal allows for reservoirs for water storage and cleansing, and thus the beginnings of a long term fresh water supply for South Florida.
Obviously Florida doesn’t want to be advertised as running dry, but it is. To the north we have Georgia hoarding water that the Panhandle requires, and to the south we have aquifers that need replenishing. That doesn’t sound nearly as good as “We want to restore the Everglades, a national treasure, to its former pristine condition for future generations to enjoy,” does it?
No matter. Take the press, Governor Crist. Enjoy it. Just make sure Florida has drinking water, water to bathe in, water to cook with, water for the farmers to use for irrigation, water for the water slides at the theme parks, oh, and water for the wildlife, too. Florida’s thirst may be the best thing that ever happened to the Everglades, the flora and fauna that call the Everglades home, and the entire globe.