On the Recent Everglades TV Ads in South Florida and what’s next in the Everglades Restoration

South Floridians may have noticed advertisements on TV recently sponsored by NGOs who work on Everglades Restoration. These ads are urging state lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money to buy land that will serve as a reservoir to bring water from lake Okeechobee down to the forever-water-starved Everglades. You will remember that this most recent election over 70% of Floridians voted for Amendment 1 to buy land for conservation purposes. In this blog, I have already made the case that this is not only a smart move economically-speaking but is also a common way for American states to fund conservation. In Florida, a state that runs on 1) the tourism sector and 2) the real-estate sector, selling houses overlooking the waterfront, any investment in functioning coastal ecosystems is an investment in our two main economic engines.

Florida Crystals, aka “Big Sugar” has come out against these advertisements and I wanted to make clear their reasons for doing so. Florida Crystals has its eyes on the prize, Governor Rick Scott’s $880 million long-term Everglades restoration plan (HB 7065) from 2013, which gifted $32 million a year towards cleaning up water run-off from South Florida farms. Let’s be clear about one thing: Florida has a polluter pays amendment, voted into existence by tax payers who were tired of paying to clean up the sugar industry’s runoff that fills our waters with unnatural amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, causing algal blooms, manatee and fish die offs, coral diseases (corals require low amounts of nutrients to thrive), sick wetlands, declining wading bird populations and so on and so forth. This $32 million dollars is a taxpayer-financed gift to Big Sugar, in effect flouting our constitution (polluter pays) and financing cleanup of their mess. I for one do not want to finance a multi-million dollar industry that is Big Sugar that lessens the environmental quality of Florida, and in doing so lessens the state’s main economic drivers.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program itself, enacted in 1990 and slated to cost between 9 and 12 billion dollars over several decades, is one massive effort to 1) restore freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park and 2) reduce the excess nitrogen and phosphorous runoff coming from the farms. Big Sugar is warning us that by buying this land, where water will run from Lake Okeechobee to the Glades, instead of gifting them $32 million will “derail” Everglades restoration. I would argue that enforcing polluter pays and making Big Sugar pay its own cleanup costs in addition to re-opening freshwater flow-ways to the Everglades is the only logical step forward. Please ignore their flailing.

image taken near Big Cypress

image taken near Big Cypress

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Vast Setbacks for Everglades Restoration

Something big just happened in Florida, and because of the seemingly complicated and bureaucratic nature of the Everglades restoration, many South Floridians may not know exactly what is at stake.

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This past week, the Army Corps of Engineers refused to get behind the Central Everglades Planning Project’s request for federal funds from Congress. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) is a 50-50 cost share between the state of Florida and the federal government. The Central Everglades Planning Process (CEPP) is a new phase of the restoration that I will describe in more detail later on. Money from the federal end comes from the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA—often pronounced “word-a”). WRDA’s are intended to fund the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake projects in “flood control, navigation, and environmental restoration.” They are supposed to happen every two years, but due to Congress’ recent inability to get itself together, we have not had one since 2007. The everglades restoration as we know it today was born out of a 2000 WRDA. These spending authorizations are critical to the Everglades project and similar restorations all over the United States.

This blog is often critical of the governor of Florida Rick Scott, and his seeming vendetta against environmental restoration and regulation in Florida. But when you view the disproportionate amount of time, energy, and money that the state of Florida has put into the Everglades restoration, when it is supposed to be a 50-50 split, you can see where the hesitation comes from to invest even more state money in the projects.

CEPP is a very unique thing. Decades of criticism over delays in the Everglades Restoration that include the red tape, political infighting, bureaucratic stalling and finger twiddling, have lead to the long overdue idea for CEPP.  Beginning with its overall purpose, CEPP is the solution the never-ending shortage of water that plagues the Everglades ecosystem. Without adequate “sheet flow” of historical amounts of water into this wide, shallow river, ecosystem functions collapse.  Ecosystem functions are very important to people because they provide goods and services that enhance our own wellbeing, and include: water filtration, nutrient cycling, disease sinks, erosion protection, and an extreme weather buffer. Where CEPP stands out is in its revolutionary planning process, using a combination of new forms of public engagement and outreach as well as hard deadlines to shrink the planning phase for projects down from 6-8 years to 18 months.  This “slimming down” has major implications for costs. The output from this process is a PIR, or project Implementation report that outlines plans for specific projects within the restoration.

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Red: Everglades Agricultural Area. White: CEPP target area (notice it is the heart of the Everglades system)

Over the past three years, I have conducted surveys of those working at the federal and state level on CEPP and CERP. Of these groups, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce, in conjunction with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) stand out. The web presence they have built in the name of public engagement and transparency means that you can follow along with all public meetings and hearings on the development of CEPP from the comfort of your home. Transcripts from all meetings and presentations are there for public viewing. According to one senior official I spoke with in the SFWMD, this streamlined process they’ve designed for CEPP deals with the fact that “what takes the SFWMD a year to do often takes the Army Corps of Engineers 8 years.”

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This begs the question, even though Governor Scott, the SFWMD, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, Florida’s members of Congress, and environmental NGOs could all agree over the passing of CEPP, why did the Army Corps of Engineers fail to approve it? Besides some bureaucratic jargon over uncertainty and some sort of failing to meet an opaque and vague set of standards, the public has largely been kept in the dark about their reasoning and who pulled the plug on CEPP. It is disappointing that a visionary planning process so dedicated to public transparency has just been squashed by one of the most opaque bureaucratic entities in the country. Worst of all, without rapid action, we will miss the deadline to be included in the current WRDA. This would render CEPP in limbo, without half the funding it needs to continue the restoration.

Biodiversity in a restored salt marsh: managed versus unmanaged habitats

Introduction

An ecological restoration is an iterative process where a degraded ecosystem is brought back to its previous, healthier state (Walters 1997; Stankey 2005). It is a multi step, non-linear process that I simplified into the following diagram:

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The purpose behind a restoration is to restore ecological services that a previously productive ecosystem delivered to society before it was degraded. Ecosystem services provided by the tidal salt marsh (one of the most highly productive ecosystem types on the planet) include water filtration, fish and wildlife habitat, pollution filtration, storm water retention, shoreline erosion protection, and recreation (Wohlgemuth 1990). Restored marshes should be able to provide these same ecological services at a rate comparable to their historic form.

The dominant physical characteristic of a tidal salt marsh is a periodic, predictable tidal inundation. Therefore, reinstituting traditional flood-drainage patterns in a tidal wetland is the first step in the restoration process. As time passes and development increases, dikes, dams, and inadequately planned water storage areas diminish the historical hydrodynamic patterns of the tidal marsh. This has implications for the salinity, surface elevation, and plant and animal communities that originally inhabited the ecosystem. In other words, plants and animals that characterize tidal wetlands require a tidal shift to survive. When this changes, new species move in and colonize, altering the state and productive capabilities of the wetland.

The history of salt marsh restoration in New England begins in the 1970s. The first step in these restorations was breeching dams and floodgates that previously stemmed the tides in the salt marshes. The aim was recreating historical hydrological dynamics in hopes that plants and animals characterizing the marsh in healthier states would return. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation documents the significant impact that restoring historical hydrological flooding has on invasive species. This is important because invasives reduce both habitat and fisheries populations. When historical flooding is restored, water salinity increases, and invasive plants such as Phragmites see their populations diminished (Robinson 2002). Alternatively they can be deliberatively removed. Biodiversity maintenance is another reason why plants that tend to choke out other natively occurring species (like Phragmites) need to be removed. Biodiversity means plants with a larger variety of ecological functions inhabit the marsh and provide a wider range of ecosystem services.

A third consideration when restoring tidal marshes in New England is the historical digging of mosquito ditches. Settlers dug mosquito ditches centuries ago to drain the marsh and lower mosquito populations, as they are disease vectors. The ditches are straight, narrow, separated by intervals of approximately 50m, and dug on 90% of the tidal wetlands on the Atlantic coast (Harrington et al. 1984). Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of removing water where mosquito larva could reproduce also reduced habitat where mosquito-eating fish could live, especially the killfish (Harrington et al. 1984).

This study examines the plant communities along the mosquito ditches in the restored Ipswitch Salt Marsh and compares them to those that lay along naturally meandering creeks in the same marsh. Figure 1 shows the salt marsh’s location in comparison to Crane Beach. Figure 2 shows the extent of the naturally occurring creeks as well as the mosquito ditches.  Figure 3 shows these features colorized, with blue for the natural creeks and orange for the mosquito ditches.

Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

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Methods

To examine plants along mosquito ditches versus natural creeks, we selected two habitats and randomly sampled a smaller plot within the habitat. We sampled with 2 replications. This involved a random toss of a square meter sampling hoop. After the random toss demarcated our sample, we next measured average plant density, plant height, and species diversity. We used small shovels do examine root development and composition. Figure 4 shows the sampling hoop and a sampling space.

Figure 4

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Results

The quantitative results are displayed in the four tables below, two for each sampled habitat.

Mosquito Ditch Sample 1

 

Species Mean height Approximate density
Spartina patens 30.48 cm 60%
Spartina Alterniflora 45.72 cm 30%
Salicornia virginica 20.32 cm 2%
Distichlis spicta 26.26 cm 8%

Range of distance between plants: 2.54-7.62 cm

Area of visible ground: 30% of sample ring

Average depth of roots: 15.24 cm


Mosquito Ditch Sample 2

 

species mean height approximate density
Spartina patens n/a 0%
Spartina Alterniflora 63.5 cm 97%
Salicornia virginica 29.21 cm 3%
Distichlis spicta n/a 0%

Range of distance between plants:2.54-8.89 cm

Area of visible ground: 20% of sample ring

Average depth of roots: 15.24 cm, but less dense than sample one with more visible soil

Natural Creek Sample 1

species mean height approximate density
Spartina patens 46.99 cm 9%
Spartina Alterniflora 111.76 cm 90%
Salicornia virginica 35.56 cm 1%
Distichlis spicta n/a 0%

Range of distance between plants: 10.16-15.24 cm

Area of visible ground: 40% of sample ring

Average depth of roots: 22.86 cm

 

Qualitative Comparative Observations:

-This sample shows more mature plants more spread out

-The surface has more variability in elevation

-Leaves are bigger and plants are taller and thicker
-Really densely packed roots, lots of fine hairs and rhizomes, almost could not pull them out

-The soil is an iron sulphur compound with far more clays

Natural Creek Sample 2

 

species mean height approximate density
Spartina patens 44.50 cm 70%
Spartina Alterniflora 116.86 cm 30%
Salicornia virginica n/a 0%
Distichlis spicta n/a 0%

Range of distance between plants: 2.54-7.62 cm

Area of visible ground: 20% of sample ring

Average depth of roots: 16.24 cm

 

Qualitative Comparative Observations:

-More mature plants, higher, broader leaves

– far more biomass

-When you don’t get down to root level, the density appears to be 100% plant coverage with no visible ground

-Roots have a lots of fine hairs and more of a range of rhizomes

Discussion

In both samples taken from the natural creek bank, the plants were markedly more mature. They were not only larger, but also with thicker stems and broader leaves. When you examined them from directly on top, you could see no visible ground. On the other hand, the plants near the mosquito ditches were smaller, and when examined from directly on top, a lot of visible ground was present. The quantitative differences in biomass were remarkable, with the natural creeks having significantly more. The roots were more matured as well, with a greater range of functional types (roots, rhizomes) and density occurring near the natural creeks. Figure 5 shows a root sample taken by the natural creeks. The study’s significance is that along more managed areas, plants mature less and less biomass (and productivity) is present. Given the information presented in the introduction on how sensitive plant communities are to inundation, I would hypothesize that unnatural inundation attributes were to blame for the lackluster plant communities that occur around managed ditches.

Figure 5

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Adaptive Management: a summary of my thesis research on the Everglades restoration

A lot of the questions of policy-making for environmental conservation involve uncertainty on how a resource will respond to treatments aimed at making it healthier. Policy-makers are often hesitant to spend money on environmental projects with uncertain outcomes.  Yet almost all environmental restorations require them to do just that. The Comprehensive Everglads Restoration (CERP) is the so-called “largest environmental restoration in the world,” and is slated to take over 30 years and cost around 8 billion dollars (both figures are on the rise however as time goes by).

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CERP is a last ditch effort to save the Florida Everglades from after over 100 years of drainage, partitioning, pollution, and degradation; it is truly an ecosystem on the brink.  CERP is sort of like a puzzle, where many small projects of restoration, when assembled as one unit, will eventually stitch together a healthier state of the ecosystem. The desired state of the Everglades should be a restored “historical hydrological flow” to the system, that existed prior to the drainage and canal-building that characterized the last 100 years.  This historical hydrological flow starts in lake okeechobee and ends at the far Southern tip of Florida, taking about one year from beginning to end.  This flow pattern at one point covered the entire southern part of the Florida Peninsula, and was basically a very shallow, slow-moving river (first written about my Marjory Stoneman Douglass as the “River of Grass”).

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This wide, shallow, slow-moving river filters pollutants from drinking water, holds large amounts of water after large hurricanes, harbors countless populations of threatened and endangered species. It is a mosaic landscape with habitats ranging from tree islands, to swamps, forests, and prairies.

The major questions and problems in CERP arise when scientists cannot predict with absolute accuracy if certain policies and expenditures of funds, will eventually lead to the desired whole.  Will the puzzle pieces fit together in the end, and restore this ecosystem in need of rapid action?  These questions bring us back to the main topic of this article: uncertainty.

Questions of uncertainty in environmental policy tend to peel back the layers of debates surrounding the philosophy of science, debates outside the scope of this blog.  Tangled-up questions arise, such as “what counts as reliable information?” “how do we know what we know?” “how can we create environmental policy when the information we have is not predictive with absolute certainty?” and so on and so on.  These questions can delay much-needed policies to restore the environment.

Buzz Holling’s groundbreaking 1978 piece on adaptive management is a good place to start.  In his piece which focuses on ecosystems, he tackles the myth that sound environmental policy cannot be made without 100% certainty of what is yet to come.  He speaks of “living dangerously” versus “living safely.”  Going back to the Everglades example, Floridians lived dangerously from the early 1900’s onward when we drained the glades and chopped it to pieces in the name of development, suburban homes, and agriculture.  Fast forward to the present day; characterized by delay after delay on CERP projects, with uncertainty used to excuse the delay.  It is easy for us to live dangerously for development, but we do not do the same for risky restoration treatments that could spell major payoff.  An example of such a treatment is allowing greater quantities of water to flow through the system, many scientists argue this is key to restoring the glades.  Adaptive management says we should try it (since it’s our best guess), monitor it, look at the data, and change if it isn’t doing what we thought it did.

Adaptive management emphases on learning as a way to reduce uncertainty through action, instead of sitting on our hands and doing nothing.  This means going ahead with projects with the best science available, monitoring their results, seeing if they produce intended consequences, then either changing direction, or continuing forward.  He asserts quite rightly that man has always lived in an absolute sea of uncertainty, and that we have always cracked on utilizing trial and error.

So that everyone involved can learn about what treatments do, and decide on what to do next, Holling proposes workshops.  These are short periods of intense interaction, where all voices can be heard, and where next steps can be agreed upon. Stakeholders present at these meetings would include fishermen, Miccosukee Indians, the Everglades Coalition of environmental groups, the sugar industry, agricultural interests, politicians looking to increase development and enhance economic opportunity in their districts.  The list goes on and on.  In between these workshops, monitoring is carried out, models are refined, and projects continue as planned.  Workshops are so that information can be shared, and that gap between scientists, politicians, and stakeholders can be bridged in a systematic way.  Stakeholders coming together to learn increases opportunities to reach consensus on what should be done in a restoration.  Unfortunately with CERP, these learning workshops are not as consistent as the should be, and data is not used to learn the way adaptive management would plan.

My own research for my MSc at Oxford actually found that stakeholders are rarely if ever engaged in decision-making for projects.  I also found that many stakeholders have declared the adaptive management component of CERP to be in name only, and a complete farce.  I found that here and there certain individual CERP projects such as the Picayune Strand are being managed adaptively, but it is not a coherent approach to managing the whole system.  Those same projects are also largely funded and staffed by independent NGOs focused on this one stretch of a large and complex ecosystem.  For one of the most frequently cited examples of adaptive management, I found a true paucity of adaptive components in this restoration.

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