Over the past century, the Everglades, one of the world’s treasured ecosystems, has been dramatically altered by drainage and water management infrastructure that was intended to improve flood control, urban water supply, and agricultural production. The remnants of the original Everglades now compete for water with urban and agricultural interests and are impaired by contaminated runoff from these two activities. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a joint effort launched by the state and the federal government in 2000, seeks to reverse the decline of the ecosystem. The $16.4 billion project was originally envisioned as a 30- to 40-year effort to achieve ecological restoration by reestablishing the natural hydrologic characteristics of the Everglades, where feasible, and to create a water system that serves the needs of both the natural and the human systems of South Florida.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine established the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress in 2004 in response to a request from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), with support from the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), based on Congress’s mandate in the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA 2000). The committee is charged to submit biennial reports that review the CERP’s progress in restoring the natural ecosystem. This is the committee’s sixth report. Each report provides an update on natural system restoration progress over the previous 2 years, describes substantive accomplishments (Chapter 3), and addresses important developments in research, monitoring and assessment that inform restoration decision making (Chapters 3 and 5). In each new report, the committee also identifies issues for in-depth evaluation considering new CERP program developments, policy initiatives, or improvements in scientific knowledge that have implications for restoration progress (see Chapter 1 for the committee’s full statement of task). For the 2016 review, the committee examined the implications
of knowledge gained and changes in widely accepted scientific understanding regarding pre-drainage hydrology, climate change, and the feasibility of water storage since the CERP was developed (Chapter 4). The committee examined how this information can be used in forward-looking systemwide analyses, consistent with an adaptive management framework, to improve the effectiveness of the restoration program (Chapter 5).
OVERALL EVALUATION OF PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES
Sixteen years into the CERP, there are some demonstrable ecosystem improvements from initial program investments. Additional major restoration enhancements are within reach as two CERP projects are nearing completion, four more are ongoing (see Figure S-1), and three major non-CERP projects with large-scale restoration benefits should be complete and operational in the next 5 years. Planning for the next potential projects is advancing.
Amidst this important progress in CERP implementation, some serious concerns remain. Although the funding outlook has improved over the past 2 years, the funding pace remains slower and the project costs greater than originally envisioned for the CERP, leading to prospects of program completion well beyond 2060. Additionally, there has been insufficient attention to refining long-term systemwide goals and objectives and the need to adapt the CERP to radically changing system and planning constraints. It now is known that the natural system was historically much wetter than previously assumed, bringing into question some of the hydrologic goals embedded in the restoration plan. Sea level rise will reduce the footprint of the system, temperature and evaporative water losses are expected to increase, rainfall may become more variable, and more storage would likely be needed to accommodate future changes in the quantity and intensity of runoff. At the same time, over 1 million acre-feet (AF) of the originally envisioned storage has been lost due to design changes, new understanding of project feasibility, and changes to Lake Okeechobee’s operating schedule.
All of these factors underscore the critical need for forward-looking, systemwide analysis to examine restoration outcomes and revisit CERP goals and objectives in light of recent and potential future changes. Forward-looking analysis, in conjunction with program-level adaptive management and long-overdue updated systemwide restoration plan evaluations (termed “CERP updates”), will ensure that the CERP is based on the latest scientific and engineering knowledge, considers long-term ecosystem needs, addresses potential restoration conflicts, and is robust to changing conditions. Such efforts need not impede ongoing or planned construction progress, and they will better inform current and future project and systemwide planning efforts. It is only through such rigorous pro-
gram evaluations combined with well-designed system performance monitoring and modeling that decision makers and the public can be assured that the best restoration investments are being pursued. The report’s major conclusions and recommendations are summarized below.
Chapter 3 addresses programmatic and implementation progress, and discusses the ecosystem benefits resulting from the progress to date.
Completed components of CERP projects are beginning to show ecosystem benefits. Several CERP project increments that have been completed or are nearing completion are beginning to yield measurable results, especially in terms of creating hydrologic conditions that are increasingly similar to predrainage flows. For example, portions of Picayune Strand are experiencing higher groundwater levels even though the project is not yet complete, and vegetation is becoming more similar to reference conditions. The Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands project has enhanced wetland inundation for more than 1,600 acres of the project area, although nearshore salinity values remained above the project targets. The documented hydrologic improvements from the CERP to date, however, involve a small proportion of the overall CERP footprint and are located on the periphery of the remnant Everglades.
Major non-CERP projects are nearing completion, with documented early benefits and anticipated large-scale ecosystem restoration outcomes in the heart of the remnant Everglades once fully implemented. After resolving procedural impediments that led to delays noted in the committee’s last biennial report (NRC, 2014), there is substantial progress under way on the Modified Water Deliveries (Mod Waters), C-111 South Dade, and Kissimmee River Restoration Projects, which are all anticipated to be completed in the next 5 years. Emergency deviations allowed additional water to flow under the Mod Waters 1-mile bridge in the spring of 2016, bringing enhanced benefits to Everglades National Park while reducing high water in Water Conservation Area 3A. Continued attention to completing the few remaining project components and developing operational plans will help to avoid further delays in the delivery of these large-scale restoration benefits that the CERP will build upon. Rigorous monitoring is essential to document the ecosystem responses to these projects, to communicate restoration progress to decision makers and the public and to inform future restoration projects.
Water quality in the remnant Everglades continues to improve through enhancements in stormwater treatment area (STA) management and operation, but water quality entering Lake Okeechobee and in the lake and its outflows remains in a degraded state. South of the lake, STAs are currently removing
approximately 80 percent of phosphorus from their inflows, and in water year 2015 the flow-weighted mean outflow concentration for all STAs (17 parts per billion [ppb] total phosphorus) was the lowest achieved over 21 years of operation. Although the target of 13 ppb total phosphorus has not yet been achieved, some STAs are approaching that goal. Improvements to STA operations are anticipated to continue as progress is made on Restoration Strategies projects and targeted research efforts. Continued progress on the quality of STA outflows is an essential prerequisite to additional and redistributed CERP flows in the central Everglades. In contrast, there is no long-term downward trend in phosphorus loading to Lake Okeechobee, despite implementation of projects that have reduced phosphorus export from agricultural land parcels and certain sub-basins. In the lake itself, phosphorus concentrations at over 100 ppb are more than double what they were in the early 1980s, and concentrations of nitrogen also are high. As a result, outflows from the lake continue to contribute nutrient pollution to the estuaries, as evidenced by the algal blooms of 2016, and make it more difficult to reach CERP goals for those areas. Additionally, if high phosphorus loads into Lake Okeechobee are not reduced through more stringent nutrient management in the watershed, larger CERP STAs may be necessary for future projects that move lake water south.
Reports on CERP progress need to clearly describe ecosystem benefits by documenting changes in key indicators relative to expectations, goals, and baseline and/or reference conditions. Timely and effective reporting of CERP ecosystem benefits to decision makers and the public is critical to ensure accountability for governmental entities that provide funding and for generating continued public support. So far CERP reporting has emphasized construction progress, but clear ecosystem changes are now evident for some projects and ecosystem benefits from other projects are likely in the near future. Therefore, additional attention is needed toward assessing and reporting CERP natural system restoration progress. Reports of CERP progress should describe the ecosystem effects predicted to result from the project relative to baseline and/or reference conditions and the time frame over which they are likely to unfold. Explaining the expected time frame for ecosystem effects is important because although some ecosystem responses (e.g., hydrologic changes) are typically rapid, others (e.g., changes in vegetation structure) may unfold slowly. To avoid creating unrealistic expectations, funders, the public, and managers need to appreciate and understand why some important ecosystem benefits may only become apparent long after project implementation. Also, understanding ecosystem responses relative to expectations is necessary to support adaptive management and determine the need for subsequent management actions if benefits fall far short of project objectives. CERP reports of restoration progress should also describe and explain the key indicators that need to be monitored to
document the predicted changes. This step could help communicate to decision makers the value of carefully chosen indicators and a well-designed monitoring plan that uses resources efficiently to address the needs of assessment and adaptive management efforts. Finally, the performance of individual projects should be linked to a holistic assessment of progress toward systemwide restoration objectives to support systemwide adaptive management (see Chapter 5) and to clearly communicate overall progress.
Although the outlook for CERP funding has shown modest improvements since the all-time low in 2012, outlays of funds continue to fall short of what is needed to complete the CERP within the next 50 years. Increased CERP funding would expedite project implementation and the delivery of restoration benefits and ameliorate ongoing ecosystem declines. Recent Water Resources Reform and Development Act legislation, new project partnership agreements, and a more stable source of state funds have alleviated constraints on federal spending that had been caused by state-federal 50-50 cost-sharing requirements for the CERP. Although construction is under way on six CERP projects, the pace of progress is dependent on funding. Sixteen years into the restoration (roughly half the original timeline of the CERP), only 16 to 18 percent of estimated total cost has been funded. Thus, substantial additional investment is needed to complete the project as envisioned.
Conflicts between restoration objectives and the needs of protected species are issues that require programmatic solutions. The creation of new wetlands and alterations in hydrology in Everglades restoration creates potential conflicts between broad restoration goals and the specific needs of protected species. The frequent nesting of stilts and snail kites in the STAs affects operations of most flow-ways and a large percentage of individual STA treatment cells. Protecting stilts and kites potentially conflicts with restoration goals related to water quality, although the effect on overall STA performance has not yet been quantified. Documenting the reduction in STA performance due to protection of nesting birds is critical to determining the importance of this conflict. In addition, restoration activities that produce net benefits for a species at the system scale can often create negative local impacts on that species. Thus, conflicts emerge between the needs of these species and the needs of restoration, as has occurred repeatedly and will likely continue to occur with Cape Sable seaside sparrows. These conflicts merit forward-looking programmatic solutions, so they do not repeatedly cause restoration delays. The USACE has proposed that a Comprehensive Conservation Plan be developed that includes identification of potential future habitat for this subspecies considering predicted flows associated with Everglades restoration projects. This approach has the potential to produce a much-needed long-term solution for the sparrow conflict that integrates systemwide sparrow conservation with the multi-species benefits provided by
the restoration. As such, it could provide a model for addressing similar issues with other species. In the case of the conflict over management of the STAs, the agencies could explore options under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, such as special use permits or memoranda of understanding, that would provide the flexibility necessary to optimize STA performance.
KNOWLEDGE GAINED SINCE 1999 AND IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CERP
In Chapter 4, the committee examines major changes that have occurred since 1999 that are likely to affect the construction of the CERP as initially envisioned and the potential for achieving the original objectives. The committee also recommends steps to address these major developments.
Knowledge gained regarding the pre-drainage system, climate change, and sea level rise suggests that a reexamination of the CERP restoration goals—including both ecology and hydrology—is in order, together with a realistic assessment of what can be achieved. It is now widely accepted that the Everglades ecosystem was much wetter historically than previously thought. As a result, re-creating historic hydrology will require more new water and have different ecological outcomes than envisioned in the CERP. This information raises new issues and opportunities that should be considered in the context of future CERP design options, including the potential for improved conditions and likely risks associated with higher flows in the southern Everglades. Restoring pre-drainage features while preserving post-drainage features that are viewed as desirable, for example the presence of marl prairies inhabited by Cape Sable seaside sparrows, will be especially challenging. Even if the restored system cannot replicate the pre-drainage system or attain all of the physical, chemical, and biological goals, improved ecosystem functioning is anticipated from partial attainment of objectives for historical water depth, and benefits from incremental restoration steps may be significant. Revised goals should also reflect the dynamic nature of the system and developing constraints imposed by climate change and sea level rise. Climate change has the potential for marked effects on the structure and functioning of the Everglades, increasing the need for CERP benefits that are robust in the face of climate change uncertainties or outcomes that help mitigate the effects of changing climate and sea level rise.
New information, project designs, and revised lake management rules have reduced the storage capacity envisioned originally in the CERP by over 1 million AF compared to the 1999 plan, which could have serious ecological consequences in both the northern estuaries and the Everglades ecosystem if this shortfall is not addressed. Major reductions in storage capacity are associated with the replacement of the EAA and L-8 Reservoir footprints with flow equalization basins (FEBs), the largely reduced capacity of regional aquifer storage
and recovery (ASR), the uncertain feasibility of the Lake Belt reservoirs, and the implementation of a new Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule. The amount of storage capacity provided by planned and authorized CERP projects to date plus the Central Everglades Planning Project (386,000 AF) is less than the 564,000 AF lost by the lower 2008 Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule. Additionally, based on the conclusions of the ASR Regional Study, estimated feasible ASR storage has been reduced by approximately 60 percent, reducing its maximum outflow capacity to a level comparable to a single large CERP reservoir and reducing CERP benefits provided in multi-year droughts. Recent scenario analyses show how loss of storage reduces restoration performance in the northern estuaries in terms of mean annual flood control releases and months with low flow, with additional impacts to restoration benefits in the remnant Everglades ecosystem and Florida Bay. Further analysis is warranted to examine the implications of various levels of storage on CERP outcomes. It is possible that updated storage designs may be distributed and operated more effectively than originally envisioned, but sufficient information is not publicly available to predict the hydrologic and ecological effects of various changes in storage on the expected systemwide benefits of the CERP. Meanwhile, climate change scenario analyses suggest an increased need for water storage under both reduced and increased precipitation scenarios to mitigate future ecosystem and water supply impacts.
Considerable uncertainty exists regarding future Lake Okeechobee regulation, available water storage beyond Lake Okeechobee, and the impacts of a changing climate. This uncertainty should not be ignored; rather, it should be addressed and incorporated into CERP planning. To address scientific and planning uncertainties associated with climate change and water storage, there is a critical need to analyze these factors and their interacting effects in CERP planning efforts. A systemwide screening analysis of feasible, yet-to-be-implemented CERP storage alternatives is needed to evaluate modeled restoration outcomes with various levels of storage. This screening could also identify the most cost-effective combinations of storage alternatives, which could be examined in more detail in individual project planning efforts. Assessments of hydrologic responses to changes in precipitation (including quantity, intensity, distribution, and changes in seasonality) under anticipated increases in temperature and evapotranspiration should be conducted on the most promising alternatives to demonstrate the outcomes of the CERP in the face of climate change and sea level rise with variable quantities and locations of storage.
The process to revise the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule should be initiated as soon as possible in parallel with the Herbert Hoover Dike modifications to inform near-term project planning involving water storage north and south of the lake. The large impacts on water storage with just modest changes in the lake regulation schedule suggest that Lake Okeechobee is a central
factor in future considerations of water storage. Decisions made on the future regulation schedule will affect storage needs both north and south of the lake and overall restoration outcomes and costs. A planning process, with substantial public engagement, would need to evaluate different regulation schedule options and their differential benefits for the lake, the northern estuaries, and the remnant Everglades as well as related economic and water supply impacts. Expediting the revision to the lake regulation schedule would also ensure that the process is complete (including a required dam safety risk assessment) so that the new schedule can be put into place as soon as the Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are determined to be sufficient to sustain higher water levels, thereby expediting ecological benefits to the northern estuaries. Once other storage elements are constructed, the lake schedule will likely need to be revisited to optimize its operations considering the additional storage features.
When the CERP was launched in 2000, adaptive management was embraced as a means of incorporating new information into the plan and addressing unforseen issues related to the plan, and the CERP was widely viewed as a leader in adaptive management. Since that time, a framework for CERP adaptive management has been developed, and a structure for implementation at a project-level adopted, but the original vision of adaptive management at the program level remains unfulfilled. In Chapter 5, the committee outlines steps that need to be taken for the CERP program to continue to lead in adaptive management and, more importantly, to ensure restoration success by incorporating new knowledge and changing circumstances into the restoration plan at the systemwide scale.
The CERP has made limited progress in articulating restoration objectives that are sufficiently quantitative to support effective planning, implementation, and assessment. An effort is now needed to develop quantitative restoration goals that capture new science and address potential conflicts in restoration. When authorized, the CERP goals were broad narrative statements on restoring the South Florida ecosystem and ensuring that the water needs of the region were met. Reaching these goals requires that realistic, quantitative objectives be developed and applied to project- and program-level restoration, which in turn requires consideration of the inherent tradeoffs that must be made in any complex ecosystem restoration program (as discussed in Chapter 4). Work has stalled on improving the quantitative interim goals, which were not adopted because of the substantial assumptions that were made in their development. Developing quantitative objectives is an essential component of adaptive management, and once established, these objectives should be periodically revisited to ensure they are still desirable and achievable given
new knowledge and modeling capability and major changes that affect future systemwide operations under the CERP.
The CERP Program-Level Adaptive Management Plan is an important first step in identifying critical uncertainties affecting restoration progress, but it requires an implementation plan and sufficient resources to be effective. The plan asks highly relevant questions about the CERP that are related to questions of storage, design and implementation, and climate change. Many of the questions can and should be addressed now through new research and modeling in addition to ongoing monitoring. Monitoring alone cannot address the challenges and tradeoffs required for decision making and management at the program level. The CERP Program-Level Adaptive Management Plan concludes that a failure to address the Priority 1, mission-critical uncertainties will paralyze progress toward meeting CERP restoration goals and that many of these uncertainties need to be addressed immediately, but no actions have been taken to implement the plan. To expedite implementation of the Program-Level Adaptive Management Plan, an implementation strategy to address the Priority 1 uncertainties is needed that identifies tasks, timelines, resources, and staffing required, and the highest priorities if sufficient funding is not available for the ideal implementation plan.
A systemwide analysis of the potential future state of the Everglades ecosystem, with and without CERP and other restoration projects, should be conducted in conjunction with a CERP Update, which is long overdue. The regular 5-year CERP Updates called for in the Programmatic Regulations to evaluate the restoration plan considering new scientific, technical, and planning information have not been routinely conducted. A holistic, forward-looking analysis of the possible future state of the ecosystem is needed in the light of new knowledge gained over the past 16 years. This analysis should consider various scenarios for climate change and sea level rise and explore the ecosystem implications of various options for future CERP implementation. By exploring alternative future scenarios, considering uncertainties in climate or funding to support implementation, decision makers and stakeholders will be better informed of the implications of near- and long-term decisions. The halfway point in the original CERP timetable is an appropriate time for such analysis and evaluation of the future condition of the ecosystem. Challenges identified by this analysis may illuminate the need for modifications, either in future project planning efforts or in the restoration goals and objectives themselves. Although some might consider that illuminating such issues makes a complex stakeholder interaction even more difficult, failing to confront these problems in a science-based, objective manner can lead to even less desirable circumstances, including unrealistic expectations, litigation, and reduced public or congressional support. The analysis and evaluation process conducted as part of the CERP Update will enable the CERP agencies to ensure restoration expectations are clear and can be achieved and
to determine if further modifications of the CERP, as allowed for in the Programmatic Regulations, are needed.
Developed and developing tools exist that can support forward-looking analyses of the CERP for project and systemwide analyses. Tools and strategies are available to explore future climate change and sea-level rise scenarios, examine the robustness of the CERP to these potential futures, and enhance decision making under uncertainty. These approaches can illuminate opportunities to adapt the restoration plan to changing precipitation, hydrology, and sea level rise and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The capability for ecological modeling has advanced in recent years, to the point that models can be used to project systemwide effects of restoration activities for a variety of ecological performance measures. Ecological models link the response of species and habitats to underlying hydrologic models at local or systemwide scales, and allow alternatives to be evaluated based on projected ecological outcomes. Ecological models are now being used along with hydrologic models in planning and assessments related to restoration—a major advance. Ecological models may be especially useful in evaluating tradeoffs between restoration goals and targets. In contrast, development and application of water quality models in the CERP continues to lag behind the use of hydrologic and now ecological models. Robust and well-tested water quality models are important tools to inform restoration strategies, particularly those that involve new water flows or redistribution of existing flows, and continued attention is needed to develop these models. The development of a robust Everglades water quality model is a key need moving forward. Improved water quality modeling tools also should lead to further refinement of ecological models, since Everglades habitat, species distribution, and ecological functioning are closely linked to water quality. As modeling advances toward an integrated set of tools to evaluate hydrologic, water quality and ecosystem response to changes, there is a need for comprehensive sensitivity and uncertainty analysis of these linked models to inform and guide assessment and planning decisions.