By Andy Reid
December 15, 2016
The report to Congress warns that rising seas and warming temperatures are threatening to worsen damage already done by decades of drainage and pollution, caused by development and farming overtaking the Everglades.
But delivering on those goals is expected to get harder as sea-level rise pushes more saltwater into the Everglades and rising temperatures accelerate evaporation of water supplies during prolonged droughts.
To compensate, more water-storage alternatives should be added to Everglades restoration plans, according to a team of independent scientists that reports to Congress every two years about Everglades restoration progress.
That could mean building additional reservoirs, such as a $2.4 billion proposal from Florida Senate President Joe Negron to store water on farmland south of Lake Okeechobee.
It also could mean trying to hold more water in Lake Okeechobee, instead of draining as much out to sea for flood control.
Sea-level rise and other effects of climate change “will need to be part of the planning and (have) not been taken into account,” said David B. Ashley, University of Southern California engineering professor who led the Everglades restoration review committee for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“Much more (water) storage may be needed,” Ashley said.
The report comes after Congress last week agreed to move ahead with the Central Everglades project – a nearly $2 billion effort aimed at getting more Lake Okeechobee water flowing south to the Everglades.
The Central Everglades plan calls for removing portions of South Florida levees, filling in canals and increasing pumping to redirect more Lake Okeechobee water south toward Everglades National Park.
That should help deliver “large-scale” help to more of the Everglades ecosystem after years of restoration efforts that targeted the periphery, according to the scientific committee.
Beyond factoring in climate change, the report calls for the state and federal government to speed up construction of other slow-moving Everglades restoration projects.
It supports getting more consistent government funding to avoid additional delays, which at this pace threaten to add decades to what is already expected to be at least a 30-year odyssey.
Even with those changes, the committee warns that the looming effects of sea-level rise and climate change may require a re-examination of long-term Everglades restoration goals.
For example, the committee suggested that sea level rising 2 feet by 2100 would bring more saltwater that changes what lives and grows on the southern end of the Everglades.
“It may be that there’s no amount of water that can keep the southern end of the Everglades the way that it is now,” said University of Florida professor Karl Havens, who served on the scientific review committee.
The report’s call for more water storage is already adding to a political fight over Negron’s reservoir proposal. He’s pushing for the Florida Legislature this spring to support building a 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
The sugar industry and farming communities oppose taking more agricultural land out of production to store water south of Lake Okeechobee. Gov. Rick Scott and other state leaders have favored storing water on land north of the lake.
But environmental groups and coastal communities support the reservoir as a way to lessen the amount of lake water drained out to sea, with damaging consequences on coastal waterways. Sending water south instead could get more water flowing to the Everglades.
“We have enough reports,” said Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO. “We’ve had plenty of groupthink. What the people of Florida want now is action. Senate President Negron’s plan to buy land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee is the key to getting restoration back on track.”
The South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration for the state, on Thursday released a statement saying the committee’s conclusion “strays from science” and is “irresponsible.”
The district warned that the committee’s call for an analysis of more water storage options threatened to lead to delays that could undermine “the remarkable progress being made.”
This is the sixth Everglades restoration progress report issued by the committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent analysis and advice to help guide national decisions involving science, technology, and medicine.