Louisiana might take notes from Florida's Everglades plan - KSLA News 12 Shreveport, Louisiana News Weather & Sports

Louisiana might take notes from Florida's Everglades plan

Brown Pelicans take flight in Florida Bay (John Snell) Brown Pelicans take flight in Florida Bay (John Snell)

For centuries, long before hotel resorts sprouted along the Florida Keys, Florida Bay was a wonderland.

The Everglades fed the blue-green waters of the bay just enough fresh water to create a world-class estuary between the keys and the mainland.

"It's in sick shape," said Dr. Jerry Lorenz, State Research Director for Audubon Florida, describing an ecosystem in near collapse.

Historically, fresh water flowed south not far from Orlando on a slow trek to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the last century, cities and farms sprouted, sticking more and more straws into the waters that once flowed into this river of grass and starving the system.

The C-111 canal, constructed in the early 1960s just outside Everglades National Park, channeled water to the east instead of south and starved the park and Florida Bay of fresh water.

"From that point on, things really deteriorated in Florida Bay," Lorenz said.

As the bay turned more and more salty, even the reefs suffered as nutrients from fertilizers poured into the system and smothered some of the coral.

"We had massive amounts of sea grass die off in the early 90s, huge algae blooms for the last 20 years or so," Lorenz said.

In the last few years, Florida has taken the first steps toward reworking the plumbing, raising part of a highway that acts as a levee, restoring wetlands and sending more water to the south.

The work is the result of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that Congress passed in the year 2000, an ambitious 30-year, $10 billion effort to restore the system to a more natural condition.

While restoration efforts have moved at a glacial pace at times, advocates say those projects that have been completed seem to be bearing results.

"The native vegetation is coming back naturally on its own without replanting," said Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

"We're seeing the wildlife activity pick up," Hecker said. "We're definitely seeing the ability of the natural system to heal itself."

The Florida effort, though it differs in significant ways, parallels Louisiana's efforts to restore its coastline.  Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan, approved by state lawmakers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, envisions $50 billion in projects spread over half a century.

Florida's dream, at only one-fifth the price, enjoys some natural advantages.

While many members of Congress greet restoration efforts with skepticism, it might be easier to tug at the hearts of constituents when the work involves saving Everglades National Park.

"Those are things that the people of America own, something they had a stake in," noted Mark Davis, Director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.

Davis points out Florida also commits to putting up half the money for restoration, including the $1.9 billion Central Everglades plan.

The CEPP would remove portions of levees, fill in canals, and construct pumps to direct water out of Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida toward the national park.

Davis argues that Louisiana must "invest in our future before anyone else is going to commit."

Environmentalists had hoped the CEPP projects would win authorization in a giant waterworks bill working its way through Congress. However, a review panel for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will apparently not complete its work in time to allow the projects to win approval in this Congress.

Corps spokesmen insist the projects are on a fast track, moving through the approval process at a much faster pace than normal.  However, advocates for the Everglades share Louisiana's frustration about delays and sparse funding dragging out the process for completing projects.

From a science standpoint,  Audubon's Lorenz noted, "there are definitely some parallels to Louisiana" when it comes to restoring both places.

"We don't have the complicating factor of our land sinking," Lorenz said.

Florida has its own concerns about sea-level rise, which threatens to contaminate Miami's drinking water supply.

"The best way to combat that is to make sure there's so much fresh water going back into the system that it literally pushes the salt water back," said Eric Draper, Executive Director of Audubon Florida. 

Waters flowing south into the Everglades today carry huge loads of fertilizers, including nitrates from farm runoff.

Florida water districts have agreed to make large investments in reservoirs, acting as giant kidneys to treat polluted water before it reaches the Everglades.

"Water is our lifeblood," said Sarah de Flesco, Program Coordinator for the group Clean Water Action.  "It's the only way that we can survive," de Flesco said, noting the importance of clean water to South Florida's thriving tourism economy.

Cleansing that volume of water poses a huge challenge, since an estimated 440,000 of the 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area are sugarcane fields.

Some critics question whether the planned reservoirs and storm water treatment areas have sufficient capacity to handle the massive amounts of contaminated water flowing from Lake Okeechobee.

Similarly, commercial and sport fishermen in Louisiana have raised objections to plans for fresh water diversion projects, designed to carry land-building sediment from the Mississippi River into the surrounding marsh. They fear negative effects on grasses and sea life from as nitrates and phosphates in the modern river.

While the fight over diversions has divided coastal advocates in Louisiana, Davis points out progress in Florida came only after bitter fights.

Lawsuits over Clean Water Act violations prompted judges to require Florida to clean up water heading into Everglades National Park.

"Good things don't just happen," Davis said. "They have to be made to happen."

Dr. Lorenz, tracking bird populations in Florida Bay, sees hopeful signs.

He has documented greater water flow, improved salinity in northeastern Florida Bay, and mores bird nests.

"It'll take time, but at least things have stopped going in decline."

Lorenz said more time and study will be needed to determine how well the restoration efforts are working.

"It certainly is not back to where it was 25 years ago," Lorenz said, "but at least the trajectory is in the right direction."

As in Louisiana, the restoration effort involves years of research, massive engineering projects and - to no small degree - untested science.

Tulane's Mark Davis points out no one has a model for what Florida is attempting.

"They are trying things that have never been tried before," Davis said. "It's not a sure bet."

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