Engineering the Everglades

Image: Rene Ferrer/Pexels

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the US, has been decimated by human activity. Before its iconic marshes and wetlands were drained and ditched to make way for agriculture and development, water flowed naturally from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and into the Everglades marshy prairie.

Now, the ecosystem has been so altered that engineers and environmentalists acknowledge it can’t go back: it’ll have to be engineered. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) has been in the works for 20 years and consists of 68 projects. Its main goals: to restore water quality, protect species and their habitat, and manage a boundary between the built and natural world. 

Why This Matters: Restoring the Everglades matters for Floridians and the native Florida species who live in the Sea of Grass. The Everglades is where a third of Floridians get their drinking water and where much of the state’s water for agriculture comes from. It’s home to endangered Florida panthers, hundreds of bird species, and 37 native orchids. The comprehensive restoration plan is “life support for a critically ill ecosystem,” E&E wrote. Although the price tag has risen to $23 billion, the cost of inaction is higher. By implementing its many elements, there’s a possibility for the Everglades to both course correct years of damage and remain resilient as the climate crisis looms. 

Invasive species further destabilize an ecosystem: As if re-engineering a water system as sea levels rise wasn’t enough, the Everglades also faces a spate of invasive species harming its native wildlife. The Burmese python, first spotted in the area in 1979 and likely someone’s released pet, has taken over, devouring foxes, raccoons, and even deer. Florida now has an annual Python Bowl, a competition for rounding up pythons, although the event is more of an awareness-raising campaign and usually only brings in about as many snakes as eggs a mother python lays in a single sitting. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has an ongoing python elimination program, and the Southwest Water Management Division caught a record 2,000 snakes in the first eight months of 2020. 

A not-so-sweet history: One of the reasons for the Everglades’ current depleted state is the sugar industry. The early sugarcane farmers polluted Lake Okeechobee, and today phosphorus runoff from sugar operations leads to algal blooms. The industry has also spent years and millions of dollars to make sure they’re not on the hook to pay for cleaning up the mess they’ve made. A 2012 study by the Everglades Foundation found that 76% of phosphorus coming into the Everglades originated on agricultural land south of the lake — but the industry only paid about a quarter of their portion of cleanup costs. 


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