The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida on December 6, 1997 · Page 22
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December 6, 1997

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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida · Page 22

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West Palm Beach, Florida
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Saturday, December 6, 1997
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22A THE PALM BEACH POST SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6, 1997 V Kissimmee. ... LEGEND; ' o . ,J Tohopekaliga e " . .Melbourne i Sugar Canals & ' ' . n 6 v- -v ' - V- ,lls Levees . , hp i v go H J iMfWfc Ha V- & Past, present and future : . ) Dix j FortPie '5 KUDES The way it was '0g2Lj: IV lake Kissimmee';, vT , .hpe , LV Tfcach Yr 1 r:- :r SI Caoo- Bel GiaXsfiJLS i - s. 1SV Fort Myers , e Area j7Nat!owl Fringe I .,-'tate 'IW (Sugarjcane fields andT vVildlifdi Si 1 . BTrV v 0cean A -c;-1? JW 1 Watershed J? K BigpressVaterfc1 Everglades ; i ( , : Nationat J, LaDOwdfe 1 marsh I .f Preserve K SharitVT 7 ( " S "ejgladesCity ' ' 0;'"J Tararri Trail 3jyjgmi , hopa V Gulf of Mexico U ee lowered fpLj V) V-C.r cean Everglades P)H I Vvi A West .l'iKsgO of toxic mercury lace the muck, water and fish. Even soil has vanished in sections of the park parched by decades of neglect lost layers of peat as much as 3 feet deep, burned away or dried into dust. And all around, civilization threatens at the borders: oil drilling north of the park, 80-foot-deep rock pits to the east, and housing developments getting closer all the time. If leaders of Miami-. Dade County get their way, Homestead will be home to a commercial airport big enough to rival Miami International. At this rate, what will be left of the park after another 50 years? ! "Without action it will continue to deteriorate," said John Ogden, an Everglades expert and senior ecologist for , the South Florida Water Management District. "The pessimistic view is, it will be a park that doesn't have much to offer except space." Even today, Ogden believes that the park is coasting on its reputation. "There are dozens of places in Florida where people can see better or similar concentrations of wildlife," he said. "There are more woodstorks nesting within a 25-mile radius of Tallahassee than there are in Everglades National Park." Reversing this slide will cost $3 billion to $5 billion and take at least a decade of work, scientists and engineers say. It also will require political will and a larger vision: You cannot preserve a park in isolation. Saving the park means saving the Everglades ecosystem that stretches from Kissimmee to Florida Bay. What's at stake is not only a park that each year draws roughly 1 million visitors, generating an estimated $127 million in economic benefits. The Everglades region provides South Florida with its drinking water, offers space for hiking and fishing, and includes the homes of two American Indian tribes. Fortunately, modest restoration efforts have begun and grander ones are in the works. Within the next year, federal engineers are due to outline a plan for reshaping the landscape to mimic nature's cycles. Using a sprawling net- ' work of reservoirs and other improvements, the plan would help ease the Everglades from the straitjacket of levees, canals and pumps created in the name of flood control. "I think we're on the verge of a great success story," said Hobe Sound environmentalist Nat Reed. "It will produce an Everglades far more productive, far more bountiful than the one we have now." What went wrong? From the beginning, Everglades National Park suffered from geography and bad timing. fj.f 1 11 J I I H M M H M " -yr ( -4 I onsdfvatfcrTho rt The way it could be Florida? 8? 'auderdale k di- . k a r Kys 1 "'By? iA -1 V National ar(il '51 Preserve mjver fv?51 SraugldVf'l'arni ROB BARGEStaff Artist the Everglades are still in the works and could take decades Vertdade National 1 to complete. Here are some of the current proposals: Lake Okeechobee: Engineers would adopt more eco-friendly ways of Florida Keys' $Z 1 Clean it up: On 66 square miles of former farmland, marshes will filter pollution from the water draining off sugar growers' fields and other sources. Construction began in April. Cost: More than $700 million. Knock down the levees: Some interior levees would be demolished or lowered, restoring some of the broad sheets of water flow that once nourished the Everglades. Experts are debating which levees to get rid of. . Cost: Unknown. The way it is controlling the rise and fall of water levels. But how? Some scientists want to keep the lake lower full time. Other proposals would merely stop dumping water down the St. Lucie River. Cost Unknown Water storage: A 40,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and 66,000 acres along the Everglades' eastern fringes would store extra water. In dry times, they would replenish the Everglades and supply human needs. They also could control flooding, filter pollution and provide habitat for birds and other creatures. Cost More than $400 million. Other reservoirs would go to unknown locations north, east and west of the lake. Cost: Unknown Lake Okeechobee: The lake, which once spilled freely into the Everglades, is ringed with dikes. When it's too full, we dump water down the Caloosahatchee 0and St. Lucie Q rivers, killing much of the marine life downstream. Northern and central Everglades: Canals and levees have chopped marshes into a farming region and disconnected "conservation areas," Qlike a series of of bathtubs. Water that once flowed south in broad sheets now flushes in narrow channels, leaving some marshes dry and prone to fire. Everglades National Park: Floodgates at Tamiami Trail dump water into the northwestern Shark River Slough 0, which used to be drier. But the slough's eastern section 0, which used to be wetter, is now parched. Other pumps and canals steal water from another waterway, Taylor Slough Q. The changes threaten nesting areas of alligators and birds such as the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Water for the park: Additional floodgates would open new paths for water flowing into Everglades National Park. This would renourish the eastern Shark River Slough and ease floods in the slough's western reaches. To the south, canals and levees are being altered to restore water flow into Taylor Slough. Cost $300-380 million. baum estimated. It was a wild success in meeting its goals and helped fuel South Florida's population boom. But it changed the character of the Everglades. No longer would the water flow south in a wide sheet, as it did when Douglas coined the term "River of Grass." It was concentrated in canals, leaving some spots dry. Half the Everglades was gone. "It hasn't been a 'River of Grass' for 50 years," said Wayne Nelson, a West Palm Beach fisherman and activist. "It's the Impoundments of Grass." The park began to feel the effects in the early 1960s, when the corps built a levee with four sets of floodgates just north of Tamiami Trail. Those gates steered water into the western, traditionally drier half of Shark River Slough, 'one of the park's two main waterways. The slough's northeast corner received little water. That started a complex chain reaction of unforeseen consequences for alligators, wading birds and other creatures. Trees moved into the dried-out marshes, driving some bird species away, and fires became more frequent. But some nesting areas began to get too much water and stay wet too long, ruining unhatched eggs or forcing adults to abandon their young. Park leaders began complaining to the corps and to the state water managers who run the canals. Despite piecemeal attempts over the past 25 years to help, they say they still don't get enough water where and when they need it. "We're the first to get the floods and the last to get the water (in dry times)," said Robert Doren, the park's assistant research director. He pointed to 1995, when floods closed parts of the park, but sugar fields in Palm Beach County were dry enough for farming. North of the park, fertilizer-tainted water from the sugar farms began in the 1980s to turn sawgrass meadows into cattail clumps too thick for birds to wade. The chemicals don't affect the For one thing, its creators did not buy all the land they needed to protect its biological richness. The park's original 460,000 acres were little more than a fifth of the area Congress had authorized in 1934. It - excluded the Big Cypress Swamp, parts of the Keys and land that would have been the park's northeast corner areas the state and federal governments would have to protect with later land buys. Even with its existing 1.5 million acres, the park doesn't include the Everglades' headwaters in the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee, or even the marshes of Broward and Palm Beach counties. That leaves the park downstream from most of the water it depends on. It was as if the federal government had protected the bottom of a waterfall, while others upstream were allowed to divert the water supply and toss debris below. Meanwhile, even as Truman and others celebrated, events under way would place the park even more at man's mercy. Two hurricanes struck South Florida in September and October 1947, flooding much of the state and leaving millions of acres under water for as long as six months. A year later, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the Everglades. So the corps spent the 1950s and 1960s ringing and dividing the marsh with one of the world's most complex networks of canals and levees. The corps straightened the winding Kissimmee River. It built a 100-mile-long wall through Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties to separate the Everglades from populated areas. It drained 700,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee, creating a region safe for sugar farming, and chopped the remaining marshes into a checkerboard of "conservation areas." The project cost the equivalent of more than $3 billion in today's dollars, corps restoration chief Stuart Apple- park directly, but they reduce the region's wildlife habitat. Today's park visitors see maybe 10 percent of the wildlife they would have seen in the late '60s, Ogden said. He remembers watching as many as 50,000 coots flocking on West Lake, about 7 miles northeast of Flamingo. The birds were so crowded, they couldn't get out of the way when a bobcat pounced in their midst. In the summers, Ogden would drive the park's main road, counting marsh rabbits. These days, he sometimes doesn't see one. "That's just a small example of what's gone," he said. "Now, if they go to Flamingo and see an alligator or a few wading birds, maybe that satisfies most people." Restoration Rescue attempts have come slowly. Some have created their own headaches. In the mid-1970s, the park evicted tomato farmers from a 22,000-enclave known as the Hole in the Donut. Noxious Brazilian pepper trees soon swarmed across the land, which growers had altered by plowing into the lime rock beneath the soil. The park service has begun trying to clear the most infested 6,400 acres by using tractors fitted with 6-foot-long whirling blades to shred the trees. Then workers grind the reddish-brown wood, scrape the soil down to the rock and cart the dirt to a nearby pile. The effort costs $8,000 for each acre cleared, project manager Michael Norland said. At this rate, it will be done in 15 to 20 years. And that's for only a fraction of the 100,000 acres the peppers have infested throughout the park. The park's expansion into the 107,000-acre East Everglades area, west of Krome Avenue, is forcing rangers to face far different tokens of civilization. They include illegal dumping, car fires, poaching, and a tradition of effort to cleanse the farm water flowing into the northern Everglades marshes, outside the park. But that's just the beginning. The corps and the water managers still are working on the next crucial step, planning the overhaul of the region's drainage system. Some activists worry that Washington's generosity will expire before the project receives the $3 billion to $5 billion it will need. Ogden, the biologist, takes heart from one big change: Just about everyone agrees on the need to restore the entire region, not merely fix isolated problems. That wasn't true in the mid-1980s, he said. Still, Ogden added, tough decisions may be ahead. What if we don't have enough water to restore both the park and the northern marshes? What if giving enough water to the sawgrass plains means drowning the tree-covered islands? Will we have to choose what to save? And how will we know if it's working? "If our ideas about the system are right, we'll see wading bird rookeries again," he said. "We'll see coots again on the West Lake. I think a lot of those things are going to happen." And if we fail? Farago pondered that question recently, after a Southwest Florida environmental group announced it would place messages for the year 2047 in an Everglades time capsule. Here's the message Farago would like to send: "We hope that our accomplishments have met the standards of our forebears that our labors will restore the Everglades so that 50 years hence, you will not look back in anger that so much effort was wasted in the withering of a wilderness God created. . . . "If our Everglades blossoms again, may the memory of our political leaders today be burnished for all future generations. If not, let no others come this way again. " visitors conducting illegal target practice with AK-47s at a house once used for training Cuban guerrillas. Even the "No Shooting" signs are peppered with bullet holes. The park service has bought only about half the East Everglades so far, and its parcels are scattered, creating tricky questions about law enforcement. Even police are afraid sometimes to come out alone, said supervisory ranger James Sanborn. "You're right in an urban area," Sanborn told a recent visitor, not far from a bean field where a bald eagle was tearing into some prey. He said strip malls and subdivisions could be bumping against the park's borders within 10 years. That kind of growth would kill the Everglades, said Alan Farago, a Sierra Club activist in Miami. He said it won't stop unless campaign finance reforms end developers' control of city and county elections. Otherwise, he said: "Elected officials will destroy the Everglades. And they will explain to the public that we didn't mean to do it." But Reed, of Hobe Sound, predicted that Mother Nature will take care of growth. He believes South Florida never will get as crowded as some planners have predicted. "The great hurricane is coming long before that," Reed said. What now? One thing the Everglades certainly will need is money. So far, it's been coming. The corps is spending about $300 million to begin restoring the balance of water in Shark River Slough, Taylor Slough and Florida Bay. Water managers have begun spending a similar amount to buy 66,000 acres for an Everglades buffer stretching from Dade to Palm Beach counties. South of Lake Okeechobee, taxpayers and sugar growers are sharing the bulk of the cost for a $700 million-plus f f

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