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EVERGLADES Guardians fight to save ecosystem

Shared from the 12/4/2019 The Denver Post eEdition By Allen G. Breed
The Associated Press

FLAMINGO, FLA.»

Grabbing a clump of vegetation to steady herself, Tiffany Troxler gingerly slides her feet along the makeshift boardwalk as she ventures out into the marsh. The boards sag, dipping her up to her knees in the tea-colored water.

“This is the treacherous part,” the Florida International University researcher says. “The water levels are up.”

To a layman, this patch of brown-green saw grass and button mangrove deep inside Everglades National Park looks healthy enough, but Troxler knows trouble lurks just beneath the murky surface. She points to a clump of grass: Beneath the water line, the soil has retreated about a foot, leaving the pale root mass exposed. It is evidence that the thick mat of peat supporting this ecosystem is collapsing — and research suggests encroaching sea water is to blame.

“You can think about these soils as your bank account,” says Troxler, associate director of FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center. “In the condition that this marsh is right now, the outlook is not good.”

Over the last century, about half the Everglades’ original footprint has been lost — plowed under or paved over, never to be recovered, so long as South Florida’s 8 million human inhabitants claim it for their homes, livelihoods and recreation.

The glades have been sapped by canals and dams that remapped the landscape and altered animal habitats, polluted by upstream agricultural areas, transformed by invasive species. And now, rising sea levels — this time, caused by man — threaten to undo what it took nature millennia to build.

Nearly two decades and $4 billion into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, an ambitious federal-state program adopted in 2000, new data about the pace of climate change have called into question how much of the Everglades can ever be restored. “I tend to think that everything can be saved,” says Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District, which monitors and runs much of the Everglades’ infrastructure. “Restored is another question.”

Today, we understand that natural systems like the untouched Everglades provide enormous benefits — water filtration, nurseries for fish and other wildlife, protection from storm surges, even carbon sequestration. But to 19th-century Floridians, all that water — and the mosquitoes and reptiles it harbored — represented an impediment to progress.

And so when Florida became a state in 1845, one of the Legislature’s first acts was to pass a resolution asking Congress to survey the “wholly valueless” Everglades “with a view to their reclamation.”

Beginning in earnest during the 1880s, a host of entities set about draining the swamp. They dug canals carrying nutrient-laden water that altered the salinity of coastal estuaries and caused toxic algae blooms. They seeded the wetlands with a Australian tree called melaleuca. The vast custard apple forest on the lake’s southern shore was torched.

And still, the tinkering continued. It was an event in 1928 that, as much as any, altered the Everglades’ course. That year, a hurricane overwhelmed a dike at Lake Okeechobee — the Everglades’ 730-square-mile “liquid heart” — causing a deluge that killed 3,000 people. The resulting 143-mile, 30-foot-high Herbert Hoover Dike now nearly completely surrounds the lake, permanently severing its connection to the park.

Scientists estimate that more than 650 billion gallons of fresh water a year once flowed south into what is now the national park. Today, that flow is about 280 billion gallons.

Now, some of the same canals and levees and pumps that helped drain the Everglades are being used to try to save them. Alongside the Everglades Agricultural Area, the 700,000-acre checkerboard of sugar cane and winter vegetable fields south of Lake Okeechobee, huge tracts are being converted to store and clean water for use when and where it is needed.

Perhaps the biggest step toward that end so far is the re-engineering of Tamiami Trail, the east-west highway that essentially has acted as a dike through the heart of the Everglades since the 1920s. Since 2013, workers have elevated 3.3 miles of the roadway, allowing water to flow freely into Shark River Slough.

“We’re starting to see the vegetation respond, and we’re getting more of those marsh grasses, more of those open water sloughs,” says Stephen Davis, a senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation.

Scientists poking through the bellies of wood storks, an “indicator species” for Everglades restoration, have found evidence that they are feasting on the non-native African jewelfish. And the endangered Everglades snail kite is showing a fondness for an exotic species of the mollusk, another latecomer to the region.

Perhaps the most encouraging development of all is the ongoing $578 million project to restore 40 square miles of the Kissimmee River Basin. Since the demolition of some of the dams, a portion of the river has found its old channel. The wetlands are returning, and so is the wildlife.

 

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