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Environment

Everglades restoration is getting a billion dollar windfall. Here's what that will buy

 The Everglades is getting more than a billion-dollar windfall as part of the nation's infrastructure spending plan.
Jenny Staletovich
/
WLRN
The Everglades is getting more than a billion-dollar windfall as part of the nation's infrastructure spending plan.

Hiking across a shallow channel in the Everglades Big Cypress swamp or airboating across the its river of grass, it’s hard to imagine that the maze of wetlands, prairies and cypress domes that were once the size of Connecticut are in deep trouble.

During the dry season, decades of flood control have left the wetlands starved for fresh water. When it rains, pollution from farm fields, city streets and neighborhood lawns ignite algae blooms in coastal waters or choke the inland wetlands with cattails. Add sea rise to the list, and the future for the low-lying Everglades that protect drinking water for about 8 million people looks grim.

 A canal that cuts across a corner of the Big Cypress National Preserve carries pollution from farm fields and can cut off water needed to keep sloughs like this one wet.
Jenny Staletovich
/
WLRN
A canal that cuts across a corner of the Big Cypress National Preserve carries pollution from farm fields and can cut off water needed to keep sloughs like this one wet.

There’s a plan to fix the marshes. But it’s way behind schedule a nd the cost has ballooned to $23 billion. The state and federal Army Corps of Engineers split the cost.

Now, a $1.1 billion dollar windfall from the Biden administration could bring some relief.

"This $1.1 billion was designed for projects that could be completed start to finish or close to start to finish , " said Eve Samples, ex ecuti ve dire ctor of Frie nds of the Ever glades .

Samples s aid the mandate for the White House money is clear: F inish three smaller projects that have been dragging on for years. Also, map out costs on two bigger projects so they don’t get mired in delays.

" And politically, you can see how that might be an appealing idea, right? ," she s aid .

The Corps confirmed the strategy in an email, but declined to be interviewed.

One of the projects helps undo some of the damage caused by the old highway that dammed up the Everglades in the 1920s and started decades of cascading problems. Without freshwater, peat soil has started to collapse and miles of seagrass have died over the years. The Army Corps and National Park Service are building a series of bridges. Now they need a bigger pump to move the water.

"It's just trying to capture those flows and steer as much of that water into [Everglades National Park] as possible , " said Steve Davis , chief scienc e offi cer for the Everg lades Foundation

Another project would finish a reservoir started 15 years ago. It’s part of the larger restoration of the Indian River Lagoon , where pollution has killed off most of its seagrass and left a record number of manatees to starve to death.

 Everglades Foundation Chief Scientist Steve Davis says bigger pumps will help move water from a conservation area, pictured here, under bridges across the Tamiami Trail and into Everglades National Park.
Jenny Staletovich
/
WLRN
Everglades Foundation Chief Scientist Steve Davis says bigger pumps will help move water from a conservation area, pictured here, under bridges across the Tamiami Trail and into Everglades National Park.

"It allows us to capture some of those flashy, low water quality flows not unlike what wetlands would do naturally , " Davi s said.

Plans for a larger project that focuses on Biscayne Bay and southern marshes would restore the wetlands that fight sea rise and storm surge.

Another plan focuses on the remote west edge, where the marshes converge with the Big Cypress Swamp. Tony Pernas is a botanist who retired this winter as resource manager at Big Cypress after 40 years with the National Park Service.

"Here is this kind of like the forgotten area ," P ernas said. "So nobody really paid much attention to it. "

A canal cuts across the preserve onto Miccosukee Tribal land. The canal drains farm fields to the north, carrying pollution from fertilizer.

"It's definitely something that needs to be addressed ," Pe rnas said.

 Tony Pernas, who recently retired as the resource manager at Big Cypress National Preserve, says one of the projects in the western Everglades will help reduce pollution from farm fields to the north and restore water flow into parts of the preserve.
Jenny Staletovich
/
WLRN
Tony Pernas, who recently retired as the resource manager at Big Cypress National Preserve, says one of the projects in the western Everglades will help reduce pollution from farm fields to the north and restore water flow into parts of the preserve.

The spending is the single - largest investment ever made in the Everglades .

Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, however, has been quick to find fault.

"It was a big missed opportunity for the federal government to not have put just not even one dime that went to the EAA reservoir ," DeSanti s said.

This Everglades reservoir has been championed by DeSantis as key to stopping pollution on Florida’s wealthy Treasure Coast and west coast. It’ll include pollution scrubbing marshes, which the state is paying to build. And getting it done wins a lot of political cache in Florida .

Republican Congressman Brian Mast represents the Treasure Coast.

"That's the Biden administration sending a middle finger over to Florida, and this is what we see over and over again ," Mast said.

But at an estimated $2-plus billion dollars, the reservoir is more expensive than the infrastructure plan’s entire national allotment for environmental projects. Army Corps officials said that’s what kept it off the list.
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