U.S. Water News Online
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the second time, an esteemed
group of scientists is picking apart the $8-billion plan for
restoring the Everglades.
In its latest criticism, a National Academy of Sciences panel said
a plan for restoring the flow of water through what is left of the
Everglades is not likely to achieve an important benefit touted by
its political backers: the transformation of murky Florida Bay into
the fishing paradise it was in the 1970s.
The report is only the panel's most recent criticism of the
massive effort to replumb the River of Grass. Last year the panel
raised questions about using an untested form of water storage,
questions that prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the
South Florida Water Management District to launch new studies of
whether it would really work.
The panel's latest report focuses on Florida Bay, at the southern
tip of the Everglades, and says the Everglades plan could actually
worsen the bay's condition.
While the plan calls for restoring the flow of fresh water through
the Everglades, there is no assurance the water will be cleaned up
before it reaches Florida Bay.
As a result, increasing the flow is likely to dump nitrogen and
phosphorous into the shallow estuary, the panel from the National
Academy of Sciences said. That will feed algae blooms that would
decrease water clarity, making the bay even murkier than it is now,
the panel predicted.
"It could be we need to do more with water quality protection,"
said David Rudnick, a senior scientist with the South Florida Water
Management District, one of the agencies implementing the restoration
The Everglades plan's implied promise to bring back gin-clear
water "may not be realistic, and there's some uncertainty about
whether it's even possible," said Stephen Humphrey, dean of the
College of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of
Florida and part of the 15-member panel reviewing the project.
The report did not surprise the plan's architects at the Army
Corps of Engineers .
"We clearly wanted to put more of the historical flows into
Florida Bay," said Stu Appelbaum, who is in charge of the restoration
plan for the corps. "But as we pointed out, there are a lot of
unknowns about Florida Bay."
Originally the Everglades was a moving sheet of water that spilled
over from Lake Okeechobee and swept southward to empty into Florida
Bay, which covers 850 square miles but averages 3 feet deep.
At low tide, the bay's mud flats provided a valuable feeding area
for wading birds. Vast seagrass beds thrived in the shallows,
providing food and habitat for snook, tarpon, permit and other fish.
The hard bottom was home to corals and sponges.
But over the past 100 years the flow was curtailed by the Tamiami
Trail, then redirected by the Army's efforts to protect South
Florida's sprawl from flooding. Now a complex web of canals, pumps
and levees shuttle water away to the sea.
Although increasingly salty, Florida Bay still drew anglers from
around the world who were attracted by its fabulous fishing and its
crystal waters. Then, in the summer of 1987, about 100,000 acres of
seagrass died off. Algae blooms and sponge die-offs followed,
spoiling the water's clarity. The population of fish, shrimp, sponges
and other creatures declined.
Fishing guides, tourism officials, environmental activists and
government agencies all agreed something should be done.
"The collapse of Florida Bay helped catalyze Everglades
restoration in the first place," said Nancy Klingener, Florida Keys
program manager for the Ocean Conservancy. "The one point we all
agree on is that it needs clean water."
One of the arguments for pushing the $8-billion Everglades
restoration plan through Congress and the Legislature was that it
also would fix Florida Bay by restoring the flow of fresh water into
The plan has been politically popular, attracting support from
politicians of both parties. But some prominent scientists have been
sharply critical, arguing that the plan will supply water for South
Florida's population to double but not really restore the Everglades.
So in 1999 Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt asked the National
Academy of Sciences to set up an independent panel to review the plan
over the next five years.
The report the science panel issued says that the long-term
effects of the restoration on Florida Bay "is uncertain." However,
increasing the fresh water flow is likely to "result in a larger net
flux of nitrogen and phosphorous out of the Everglades."
That will "increase nutrient loading to the bay," the report says,
and the result will be "an increase in phytoplankton blooms and a
decrease in water clarity." Those changes "will be viewed by many as
The panel called for increased research, not only into what the
Everglades plan would do to the bay but also into what the bay was
like before humans tampered with it. There is some indication that,
at the turn of the century, the water was not as clear as in the
"There's a pretty good consensus among the scientists that
gin-clear water was an anomaly," Rudnick said. But reproducing that
clarity "is aesthetically pleasing, and the public may value that so
much that it may drive our goals."
The panel's first report raised questions about the idea of
injecting more than 1-billion gallons of freshwater a day into 333
wells and holding it 1,000 feet underground as a bubble in the
brackish aquifer, to be pumped later back to the surface to feed the
Everglades or thirsty Floridians.
The science panel warned that holding water in Florida's
underground caverns for so long could lead to chemical interactions
with the substrata, and that the pressure will fracture the
formations that separate drinking water from millions of gallons of
municipal sewage being injected below the wells.
The panel has two more reports in the works that are slated for
release this fall. One takes another look at the water-storage plan,
while the other examines how to measure whether the project is
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