SOUTH FLORIDA -- A dozen years into the joint federal and state effort to restore the Everglades, progress in re-plumbing the core of the system has been scant, says a congressionally mandated report released last week.
"Unless near-term progress is made to improve water quantity and restore water flow, ecosystem losses will continue, many of which would require decades to centuries to recover," William Boggess, chair of the National Research Council committee that wrote the report, said in a prepared statement.
The report is the fourth biennial evaluation of the progress being made on the $13.5 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Inaugurated in 2000, the plan involves numerous engineering projects which together are intended to mimic the historical north-to-south sheet flow of the Everglades system, which has been disrupted over the past 75 years by an extensive network of canals, dykes and other water control systems.
In addition to moving more water from Lake Okeechobee and areas north into the central and southern Everglades, the overall restoration effort must also reduce phosphorus pollution caused by the sugar plantations south of Okeechobee while continuing to provide flood protection to South Florida's urban and agricultural areas.
The NRC report notes that some progress has been made in Everglades restoration over the past two years. Eight projects are now under way, including an effort to reduce the harmful impact that the C-111 canal, extreme South Florida's largest, has had on Florida Bay.
Last December the state completed a $26 million project that will increase freshwater flow into the bay, a move that is expected to improve the overly salty water conditions believed to be a major cause of the diminished water quality in the 850-square-mile estuary.
However, the report states, little progress has been made on projects that would benefit the core of the Everglades system, including the mainland areas of Everglades National Park.
One major cause of the delay has been funding. Though the cost of CERP is supposed to be borne equally by Tallahassee and Washington, from 2002 to 2011 Florida spent just under $3.1 billion to the federal government's $854 million.
Recent state budget cuts likely mean the feds will bear increased responsibility for moving restoration ahead in the coming years, the reports says.
In analyzing the impact of the slow progress on the central Everglades, the committee looked at 10 indicators. It found that phosphorus pollution is improving, though full recovery could be decades off or more. But the condition of other portions of the Glades ecosystem is dire.
For example, tree islands, ridges and sloughs and the population of the snail kite, known as an indicator species for Everglades health, are all degrading, with full recovery likely decades or centuries away.
Despite the continued decrease in the health of the Everglades ecosystem, the NRC committee did find promising the implementation of the Central Everglades Planning Project last fall by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The goal of CEPP is to complete a plan for a suite of central Everglades restoration projects within two years.
In a joint press release last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District touted another recent positive sign for the Everglades: the state's commitment earlier this month to spend $880 million on additional water quality projects designed to reduce phosphorus pollution.
The NRC report emphasizes that it will take a combination of improved water quality and water flow to successfully restore the Everglades.