The “River of Grass,” the remarkable one-of-a-kind swampy wilderness next door to Naples, is getting some tender loving care. It’s very welcome and it’s coming none too soon.

Dave Trecker

by Dave Trecker

Certainly, if anything in South Florida is worth preserving, it’s the Everglades. The stark landscape is unique—beautiful, mysterious, wild.

Both tropical and temperate plants flourish in the largest subtropical area in the United States and one of the largest wetlands in the world.

The wildlife is like no other. There are bears and panthers and manatees. Wading birds are everywhere—herons, egrets, storks, stilts, limpkins, cranes, ibis, spoonbills. There are hawks and ducks and kingfishers.

At its southern extremity in Flamingo, you can see alligators in freshwater sloughs and crocodiles in saltwater estuaries, remarkable side-by-side sightings unique to the Everglades.

Everglades National Park, established in 1934, protects the southern 23% of the ecosystem. With Shark Valley, Ten Thousand Islands and the main body of the park extending down into Florida Bay, there is visitor access by highway, boat and miles of trails.

I’ve been there many times and I’m always impressed. It’s a photographer’s paradise, a special place. And it’s endangered.

Growth in the 20th century interrupted the water flow from the north. Flood-control projects were put in place to protect growing cities.

Water was diverted to irrigate sugar cane and support growth of high-value fruit and vegetables that thrive in the subtropical climate. Runoff from the fields and groves became polluted with herbicides and nutrients from fertilizer.

Clean water flows to the Everglades dwindled. Recognizing the ecological danger, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000, a 35-year, $10.5 billion program — the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States. A state/federal partnership was established to implement CERP, a joint effort by the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The estimated cost has now ballooned to over $23 billion, only $3.2 billion of which has been allocated.

But there has been progress. The C-44 reservoir and its attendant water-treatment system completed last year will keep discharges from Lake Okeechobee from polluting flows to the St. Lucie River and Florida’s east coast. The C-43 reservoir, a similar system designed to cut polluted discharges to the Caloosahatchee River and the west coast, is scheduled for completion in 2023.

And there’s even more good news. Recent policy changes governing Lake Okeechobee discharges will ensure increased flows south to the parched Everglades, an average of 200,000 acre-feet per year according to USACE Chief James Booth, a plan hailed by many environmentalists.

To control and clean up the water going south, the USACE and SFWMD are constructing the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and filter marsh, a massive project due for completion in 2028. And to allow the enhanced flow to reach the national park, nine miles of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) are being raised and bridges installed.

The effects are already being felt. “We’re seeing record hydration in the Everglades, proving the restoration infrastructure works,” said Charlette Roman of the SFWMD governing board. “We’re getting more water into the Everglades and nourishing the ecosystem.”

She credits Governor Ron DeSantis for making this happen. State funding for water quality in fiscal 2022-23 exceeded $1.7 billion, with $540 million directed to the Everglades.

Ms. Roman said, “Since Governor DeSantis took office, more than $3 billion in water resource funding has been provided.” The Feds are also kicking in. The bipartisan infrastructure bill contains $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration.

The money will be put to very good use.“ Between now and 2026,” Ms. Roman said, “we will cut the ribbon on over 20 additional projects — game-changers that will bring clean water and new life to the Everglades.”

Things are definitely looking up for the “River of Grass.”

Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.

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