Getting the water right

Are the Everglades finally recovering

The Everglades are an unmatched, enormous subtropical ecosystem in Florida that serves as a vital home for a variety of endangered and uncommon species. Although this is a beautiful place to visit, they are often referred to as the “most threatened park in the United States” for a multitude of reasons.

Beginning in the 1960s, water quality has been lowered by the phosphorus in farming and rainwater runoff. The plants and animals in the Everglades thrive on low amounts of phosphorus, so when the higher amounts were introduced to the environment, there was a large amount of algae that disappeared and it dissolved oxygen in the water. This has had a devastating effect on fish and caused changes in the native plants which the animals rely on for food. By 1990, it was believed that the Everglades had been affected to the extent of almost 40,000 acres. When this was realized, plans were implemented immediately. 

The federal and state departments have built around 57,000 miles of drainage systems called Stormwater Treatment Areas, or STAs, that eliminate phosphorus well before water flows into the Everglades by using effective management methods to minimize phosphorus before the water drains from the farm. The Clean Water Act, which was introduced in 2012, mandates that the STAs get licenses, which set phosphorus emissions standards.  

Recently, there have been increasing indicators that this vast, multibillion-dollar endeavor is starting to work after years of preparation and asking for both political and financial backing to restore the Everglades. The most positive sign is that wildlife, which serves as a barometer for a thriving ecosystem, has recovered in many parts of the region. Scientists are seeing increased rates of bird and alligator nests in the south of Shark River Slough. “We are seeing historic levels of flow,” Steve Davis, chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, stated.

Another sign is that the mushy, watery peat ground that lives beneath the sawgrass fields in certain areas of the Everglades is continuing to remain wet. When the land lacks moisture, those places become crispy. Dry peat emits carbon dioxide, intensifying climate change. Those dry patches can quickly cause fires, leading to extensive and dangerous wildfires. “This is all great news. Are we there yet? No. We are not fully restored. But, we are trending in the right direction. We have more and deeper water in the right location in the park,” Melodie Naja, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, said.

This is not an issue that can be solved overnight. This problem will take years to completely heal, but with the proper initiative, rigorous efforts and planning, the Everglades will be restored to its original beauty in our lifetime.