River of Grass Ready to Heal.
HOMESTEAD, FLA.--The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has presented a long overdue plan to rebalance the delicate freshwater ecosystem of south Florida that includes Everglades National Park, among the most debilitated and vulnerable parks in the nation.
Projected to span 20 years, the corps' multi-billion-dollar plan has been praised by members of the Everglades Coalition, including NPCA. However, much improvement is needed before Everglades National Park can be restored to even a fraction of its original health.
A main component of the corps' plan entails trying to reestablish south Florida's historic rainwater sheetflow--a critical process of slow, shallow drainage down the peninsula that naturally regulates water levels in the Everglades ecosystem. The process was severely disrupted when the corps altered Lake Okeechobee and built a system of canals, dikes, and levees to drain agricultural areas and provide drinking water for residents of south Florida. The region's population is expected to reach 11 million by the year 2050.
The corps' restoration plan takes the predicted population explosion into account by endorsing an untested proposal to pump most of the nearly one trillion gallons of fresh water--currently redirected out to sea--into vast underground aquifers. According to the corps, the restoration plan meets 97 percent of the region's urban water needs but satisfies only basic environmental requirements for the Everglades ecosystem at 70 to 80 percent.
Other proposals in the plan:
* remove 72 miles of canals and 124 miles of levees--structures that now usher water away from life-sustaining marl prairies and sawgrass rivers;
* reconstruct the Tamiami Trail--possibly elevating it--to allow water to flow potentially unimpeded southward;
* restrict development and purchase drained land for restoration purposes as soon as it becomes available;
* preserve buffer areas on the eastern boundary of the park to protect water quality and wildlife.
Still, some Everglades experts remain skeptical about the plan. Some areas could be kept continually dry for the benefit of deer hunters while an adjacent parcel would be flooded with the surplus water. One state agency has refused to fill in canals so that fishermen may continue to use them for recreational purposes.
"The proposed plan falls short of meeting restoration targets for the central and southern Everglades, including Everglades National Park and the estuaries of Shark Slough and Florida Bay," says Dr. Thomas Van Lent, research scientist at Everglades National Park. "Water volumes are well below what are needed, and management objectives remain spatially fragmented, making consistent hydrologic releases difficult."
Dr. Stuart Pimm, professor of ecology at the University of Tennessee, agrees: "The plan should be reviewed by external, independent biologists and hydrologists who are impartial to the Everglades ecosystem and to south Florida's urban water demands." Pimm is the foremost expert on the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the Everglades.