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Signs of Everglades recovery emerge. Long way to go but ‘trending in the right direction’

 An egret hunts for food in the Florida Everglades
Jose A. Iglesias
El Nuevo Herald
An egret hunts for food in the Florida Everglades on Feb. 24, 2023.

“Are we there yet? No. We are not fully restored. But, we are trending in the right direction,” says Melodie Naja, National Park Service scientist.

After decades of planning and pleading for political support and dollars to restore the Everglades, there are growing signs that the massive multibillion-dollar effort is beginning to “get the water right.”

That’s long been the measure of success for the federal and state agencies tasked with the job. The goal sounds deceptively simple but is immensely complicated, requiring not just sending more water through the parched southern Everglades and into Florida Bay but ensuring that bordering communities aren’t flooded in the process.

The most encouraging indicator: Wildlife, the measuring sticks of a healthy Glades, has rebounded in areas in many areas across the system.

During an Everglades Foundation-led tour of state-owned wetlands just north of the park on Friday, bird life was abundant. And scientists are seeing rising rates of bird and alligator nesting to the south in Shark River Slough, where Steve Davis, chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, said “we are seeing historic levels of flow.”

But water managers also point to how the partially re-engineered system performed during the major recent test of Hurricane Ian. The powerful hurricane took more than a hundred lives, but it also dumped tremendous amounts of rain throughout the state, including every corner of the Everglades.

Sawgrass reflecting off the water in the Florida Everglades.
Jose A. Iglesias
El Nuevo Herald
Sawgrass reflecting off the water in the Florida Everglades.

In the north, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently finished restoring the Kissimmee River to its natural meandering state, the river absorbed and cleaned much of the floodwaters. A smaller amount then drained down into Lake Okeechobee, the liquid and too-polluted heart of the Everglades system. A newly built reservoir near the St. Lucie River soaked up even more rain, meaning less dirty lake water was discharged to the east and west — releases that have periodically triggered fish-killing algae explosions on both coasts.

“It cut those discharges to less than a week, when it would have been weeks otherwise. This kind of project works,” Drew Bartlett, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, that state agency leading restoration efforts, said during a presentation at last month’s Everglades Coalition Conference.

Farther south, a now-elevated section of Tamiami Trail lets more water flow to swaths of Everglades National Park long cut off from the natural flow of the River of Grass. But newly installed underground steel walls that protect the Las Palmas community, a neighborhood right on the park’s edge, kept homes and streets dry even as water flowed south — unlike previous years.

“With that underground wall, that did not happen this year,” Bartlett said. “The walls, game changer. Raising Tamiami Trail, game changer. It’s all working and it’s very exciting.”

Storing more water and routing it to the right places will also make the Everglades and South Florida more resilient to the projected impacts of climate change, including increasing sea rise and the potential for wetter hurricanes.

But the most important signs can be seen in the natural landscape of the northeast Shark River Slough.

Areas that used to be bone dry and prone to wildfires are finally staying soaked for the whole year, the way they were before dredging and canals siphoned off so much water. In a map Bartlett showed during his presentation, the difference was stark. A path of green, marking water levels above the ground, now cuts through the deep red (indicating water-free) areas of the park during the dry season.

 This graphic showing average water depth during the dry season in the southern Everglades shows a recent change
This graphic showing average water depth during the dry season in the southern Everglades shows a recent change, a flow of water above ground levels through Shark River Slough, thanks to new restoration efforts. Red and yellow patches indicate water levels below the ground, while green and blue patches represent water up to three feet above ground.

“You didn’t see the green the last 20 years you saw in the dry season,” Bartlett said. “That’s the river of grass. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The numbers back Bartlett up.

Col. James Booth, commander of the Jacksonville district of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency has had back-to-back years of record-setting and near-record-setting flow of water under Tamiami Trail.

“This is obviously where we want to get. We want to see the benefits to the Everglades and the environment but also see the resiliency and the benefits to the human environment,” he told the crowd gathered at the Everglades Coalition Conference.

Melodie Naja, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, said water levels have reached as high as two feet in the northeast part of Shark River Slough.

“That’s unheard of in the park,” she said during her presentation.

Naja also attributes some of the positive signs she’s seen in the park to the new strategy of delivering water into the park, first started five years ago. While she said it will take 10 years to be able to tell for sure if the new modified water strategy has had an impact on the park, Naja said she’s encouraged by what she’s seen.

Alligator nests are popping up in more corners of the park, a sign that they like the higher water levels. And nesting bird colonies are inching south again, after they moved dramatically inland when the Glades first started to dry up.

Another good sign: The soggy, mucky peat soil that lives underneath the fields of sawgrass in some parts of the Everglades is staying wet. When the park is starved for water, those areas get crispy. Dry peat releases carbon dioxide, which accelerates climate change. And those dry spots can catch fire easily, leading to widespread and destructive wildfires.

This is all great news. Are we there yet? No. We are not fully restored. But, we are trending in the right direction,” Naja said. “We have more and deeper water in the right location in the park.”

An egret prepares to take flight in the Florida Everglades
Jose A. Iglesias
El Nuevo Herald
An egret prepares to take flight in the Florida Everglades on Feb. 24, 2023.

To Davis, with the Everglades Foundation, the progress in the last decade alone in Everglades restoration has been far more dramatic than the 20 years previous. And with new progress coming this summer with the raising of the Old Ingraham Highway and a new Lake Okeechobee water management system that will send more water south, Davis said he expects the improvements to continue.

“It’s incredible to think we’ve only been making monumental progress since Tamiami Trail in 2012,” Davis told the Herald. “These projects, they’re not additive in their effect, they’re multiplicative.”

But while advocates are excited to finally start seeing the fruits of their labor, not every corner of the Everglades is showing improvement.

“We’ve seen a lot of success in the southern and eastern Everglades, but the western Everglades is enormous and a huge, huge part of the entire Florida everglades system,” Curtis Osceola, chief of staff of the Miccosukee Tribe, told the Everglades Coalition Conference.

Osceola urged advocates to center native voices in Everglades restoration. One of the priorities of his tribe is faster action on western Everglades restoration, where their reservation is located.

The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to finish its plan for the western Glades, and it could be years before the region sees federal dollars for the needed projects.

“The tribe, now, has placed itself in a position of leadership,” Osceola said. “They’re ready to work. They’re ready to do that policy advocacy, and they’re ready to guide where to put those shovels in the ground.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.