During 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 management, 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 sectors. 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 multibillion-dollar 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 seventh report. Each report provides an update on natural system restoration progress during the previous 2 years, describes substantive accomplishments (Chapter 3), and reviews developments in research, monitoring, and assessment that inform restoration decision making (Chapter 4 and 6). 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 2018 review, the committee performed an in-depth
review of CERP monitoring, with particular emphasis on project-level monitoring and assessment (Chapter 4). To inform forward-looking systemwide planning decisions, the committee synthesized recent information on Lake Okeechobee and the effects of water levels on lake ecology (Chapter 5) and reexamined the value of a mid-course assessment of the CERP outcomes focused on the South Florida ecosystem of the future (Chapter 6).
OVERALL EVALUATION OF PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES
During the past 2 years, there have been impressive efforts toward project planning associated with four new projects. A vision for planned CERP storage, at least in the northern portion of the system, is now becoming clear, although the future storage to be provided by Lake Okeechobee remains unresolved. Recent analysis has shown that coordination of operations can make more effective use of available water, potentially reducing the amount of CERP storage needed to achieve successful restoration. However, the systemwide implications of the new projects, which have been in planning concurrently, have not been assessed. Construction continues on five CERP projects (Figure S-1), and state funding for CERP project construction has increased, while two major non-CERP projects have been completed. Documentation and analysis of incremental restoration benefits from project implementation to date have been inadequate, primarily because of limitations in project-level monitoring and assessment efforts. Improvements to the monitoring and assessment program, at both project and systemwide scales, are recommended to increase the usefulness of monitoring data for CERP decision makers.
Eighteen years into the CERP, the committee recommends a mid-course assessment that analyzes projected CERP outcomes in the context of future stressors. Rather than continuing its primary focus on restoring pre-drainage conditions and basing decisions on the ability to achieve those conditions under contemporary climate (1965-2005), the CERP program should emphasize restoration focused on the future of the South Florida ecosystem and build upon the accumulating knowledge base to support successful implementation of this program. This effort requires a rigorous assessment of the latest CERP project plans that examines their integrated performance under future climate and sea level–rise scenarios and other stressors. With seven large projects authorized and awaiting appropriations for construction and three additional projects nearing the end of their planning processes, the time is right for a mid-course assessment. This information could then inform robust decisions about future planning, funding, sequencing, and adaptive management. Implementing a restoration program that is resilient to future conditions also requires a science program that can bring
the latest information and tools into CERP planning and implementation. The major conclusions and recommendations of the report are summarized below.
In Chapter 3, the committee outlines the major accomplishments of restoration, with an emphasis on natural system restoration progress, and discusses issues that may impact progress. CERP project implementation remains in the early stages. If recent (5-year average) federal funding levels continued and were matched by the state, construction of the remaining components of the congressionally authorized projects could take approximately 65 years; construction of projects in planning or those currently unplanned would further lengthen that timeline. At this pace of restoration, it is even more imperative that agencies anticipate and design for the Everglades of the future.
Incremental restoration progress from early CERP projects is difficult to evaluate because of a lack of rigorous assessment of outcomes relative to project goals and some limitations in existing monitoring plans. The committee reviewed available data and analysis on the restoration progress associated with three early CERP projects in which substantial project components are now in place and operating (see Figure S-1, Nos. 2, 6, and 7). The Picayune Strand Restoration Project shows increased water levels in the area of the two canals plugged to date. Hydrologic conditions are expected to improve further toward conditions at the reference sites once neighboring canals are plugged. Some early indicators of habitat response at Picayune Strand are apparent in the species composition of groundcover vegetation and suppression of some exotic species, but other ecological indicators, such as increased cypress regeneration, have not shown significant change. This lack of response could be due to lag times in ecological response, limitations in the monitoring plan, or insufficient hydrologic restoration to date. Analysis of these or other factors is an essential but missing component of performance assessment. At the C-111 Spreader Canal project, neither hydrologic nor ecological response in Taylor Slough or Florida Bay due to the project has been documented based on monitoring data because the monitoring and assessment plans are not robust enough to discern project impacts from existing hydrologic variability. The lack of specific numeric targets and an explicit plan and model to evaluate restoration progress hinders restoration assessment of these two projects. The Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands monitoring program has documented hydrologic and ecological responses, although both are limited by the small spatial scale of the components that have been implemented and important project components that are not yet constructed.
Concurrent project planning efforts have significantly advanced the CERP
vision for water storage, but a holistic understanding of the benefits of the combined projects at a systemwide scale and their resilience to sea-level rise and climate change is lacking. Tentatively selected plans have been developed for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir and the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, which together propose adding 283,000 acre-feet (AF) of surface storage and 80 aquifer storage and recovery wells. Each project is expected to reduce high-volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Northern Estuaries and to modestly improve the period that Lake Okeechobee stage is at ecologically preferred levels. The EAA Reservoir also provides moderate hydrologic improvements to Water Conservation Area (WCA) 2A and northern WCA-3A. By 2019, all of the large CERP storage projects at the northern end of the system will have been planned, with only Lake Okeechobee and southern storage (i.e., Lake Belt) remaining unresolved. Preliminary modeling suggests that with system optimization, the full storage planned in the original CERP may not be needed to provide the flows into the northern end of the Everglades as envisioned in the CERP. However, a new integrated, systemwide modeling of the planned projects is needed to understand the combined benefits relative to restoration objectives. More rigorous analysis of the potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise on restoration outcomes is necessary in planning for all projects, so that restoration investments are designed for and more resilient to future conditions. The SFWMD and the Interagency Modeling Center have the talent and tools to conduct these analyses, and the SFWMD is pursuing this approach for planning and management issues outside of the CERP.
Impressive advances have been made toward water quality objectives in the stormwater treatment areas (STAs). The lowest flow-weighted mean total phosphorus concentrations to date (15 ppb for all STAs combined) were attained in water year 2017, and continued water quality treatment and science investments through the Restoration Strategies program are expected to further reduce phosphorus levels toward the 13 ppb goal. Achieving this goal is a necessary step to move forward with new water flows in the central Everglades. Understanding the dynamic ecological responses to restored flows (and the relative importance of phosphorus concentration and load in controlling ecosystem response) during these transitions is an emerging challenge. Where existing flows are currently being redistributed, as in the Decomp Physical Model and the non-CERP Florida Bay Initiative, project teams are following adaptive management approaches where feasible to learn from these efforts and to inform future Everglades flow restoration projects.
The recent completion of two major non-CERP projects is expected to provide important restoration benefits to Everglades National Park and increasing operational flexibility for managing high water events throughout the remnant
Everglades. Completion of the Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park (Mod Waters) and C-111 South Dade projects in August 2018 are major achievements that have been more than 25 years in the making. Development of the Combined Operational Plan is under way, which will quantify the benefits provided by these projects.
MONITORING AND ASSESSMENT
Monitoring is essential to assess the effectiveness of ecosystem restoration efforts (i.e., what was the response?) and support adaptive management (i.e., if the expected outcomes did not occur, why not?). The collection and assessment of monitoring data are necessary to communicate the outcomes of restoration efforts to decision makers and the public, support learning from the restoration outcomes, and guide decisions about future changes that may be needed. The committee’s conclusions and recommendations for monitoring were informed by a review of project-level monitoring for three early CERP projects (Picayune Strand, Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands [Phase 1], and C-111 Spreader Canal Western) and of the CERP systemwide monitoring program. Although this and previous National Academies committees have recommended improvements in CERP-associated monitoring programs, this does not necessarily mean that additional funding for monitoring is required. There are many ways to improve both the efficiency and the effectiveness of the CERP monitoring program within the existing monitoring budget.
The three CERP projects analyzed vary in the extent to which they have implemented effective monitoring plans. The RECOVER 2006 Assessment Strategy for the Monitoring and Assessment Plan provides valuable guidance on how to establish monitoring plans to detect change and evaluate progress toward goals. However, the three projects reviewed in Chapter 4 have not implemented this guidance systematically. For example, there is variation in the extent to which quantitative restoration objectives are articulated. Not all projects have established a clear sampling design and data analysis plan as part of the monitoring plan, which could limit the usefulness of the results.
Quantitative restoration objectives, with accompanying expectations of how and when they will be achieved by management actions, should be developed for each project during the project development process. Quantitative objectives are needed to effectively measure restoration progress and operationalize goals. In addition, an acceptable level of variability of monitoring data around these objectives should be established so that management actions can be adjusted and adapted if the desired outcome is not being achieved. In the early stages of project development, project teams may be more comfortable
with narrative objectives. However, it is essential to establish quantitative objectives as part of the monitoring plan with uncertainty described as appropriate. As programs evolve, more is learned about project functioning, and knowledge and modeling tools improve, the quantitative objectives can be refined.
Monitoring plans should include an evaluation of the ability to detect restoration success given natural variability and sampling constraints. Models and historic monitoring data can be used to select metrics and design sampling plans to determine restoration success with a high degree of certainty, considering natural variability, expected changes from factors such as sea-level rise, and constraints such as site accessibility, funding, and personnel. These analyses should help direct monitoring investments to where they will be most effective.
Modeling and statistical tools should be used in combination with monitoring data to assess restoration performance. External factors, such as precipitation and temperature variability, impact hydrologic and ecological responses, making it difficult to determine ecosystem response to restoration projects when compared to baseline data. Where feasible, reference and control sites can be used to quantify project-related effects, but for most Everglades projects, well-characterized reference and control sites are not available. Additional tools, such as modeling and statistical analyses, are essential to help quantify the effects of the projects and to separate them from ongoing system variability and trends. Modeling tools can be used to separate the effects of other long-term changes, such as sea-level rise or invasive species, on project performance as well as to understand the effects of an individual project within a region that is affected by multiple, interacting projects. Although the CERP has a strong modeling program for project planning, models are rarely used to interpret monitoring data, greatly reducing the potential value of existing data. When numerical or statistical models are to be used in performance assessment, the data analysis plan should be identified before the data are collected to reduce bias in the assessment.
Project-level monitoring should be revisited periodically to ensure that sampling designs and data-analysis plans are effective and efficient and that monitoring investments yield useful information. Periodic reviews would include assessing the usefulness of the monitoring data to meet decision-making needs and the relevance of the selected indicators to the questions being asked. Other considerations include the validity of the conceptual model, the timing and rate of ecosystem response relative to sampling intervals, the adequacy of the spatial scale of monitoring considering the scale of anticipated response, and the use of rigorous computational or statistical tools for data analysis. Such reevaluation should lead to more effective and efficient performance monitoring and will strengthen the capacity to learn through adaptive management.
The full implementation of adaptive management plans will substantially
increase learning about the restoration process. Adaptive management allows learning to take place as new knowledge is gained about ecosystem response to restoration and how changing future conditions (e.g., climate change, sea-level rise) might affect restoration outcomes. Only one of the three CERP projects analyzed (Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands) has an established adaptive management plan. Without an adaptive management plan, it is difficult to structure monitoring and evaluation so that new knowledge can be applied in a flexible decision-making process. Performance monitoring may show that project objectives are not being met, but performance monitoring alone cannot explain the reasons for failure or inform restoration decisions. Learning through monitoring is also limited by the lack of integration of modeling with monitoring, which can aid in setting quantitative objectives and projecting reference conditions. Monitoring plans for adaptive management should evaluate whether the restoration project is expected to result in measurable change with high certainty for adaptive management indicators and over what time frame.
The CERP program currently lacks a mechanism for multiagency assessment and reporting of project-level monitoring results. The RECOVER System Status Reports (SSRs) provide comprehensive multiagency analysis and synthesis of systemwide monitoring and assessment of trends, but they do not provide analysis and assessments of individual project performance. Currently, most reporting of project-level monitoring data occurs via the South Florida Environmental Reports (SFERs), which annually compile the data associated with permit monitoring. However, these reports contain limited analysis of long-term trends, project performance relative to expected objectives, and potential adaptive management needs. Additionally, the SFERs do not provide the opportunity for multiagency perspectives or RECOVER input. A variety of other reports, many by contractors, also provide sometimes fragmented summaries of data from monitoring but information on overall project performance relative to objectives remains lacking. A better-organized, multiagency analysis and assessment of project performance based on monitoring results should be developed to provide transparency to decision makers, funders, and stakeholders. This effort would also help support project-level adaptive management efforts.
The upcoming RECOVER review of its systemwide monitoring plan should be embraced as an opportunity to improve its effectiveness and efficiency. Many of the same issues addressed in project-level monitoring, such as the ability of the sampling plan to address the key questions and the availability of data to allow adaptation of management actions if the desired outcomes are not being achieved, are evident in current approaches to systemwide monitoring. The monitoring review, scheduled to begin in 2019, should also consider the relevance and usefulness of indicators, statistical rigor of the assessment, use of
modeling for data analysis, and the appropriateness of the spatial and temporal sampling design to ensure that the investments in monitoring are being made toward data that can inform assessments and decision making. Scientists should understand and incorporate the needs of decision makers into the monitoring program. Similarly, decision makers should understand what information scientists can and cannot provide. This approach will require an iterative two-way dialogue between managers and scientists covering such issues as risk tolerance or aversion, what amount of confidence in data summaries is acceptable and possible, which indicators are most important and feasible to monitor, what decisions the information will be used for, and what information is of most scientific value for specific decisions. The process by which monitoring reviews are performed requires a thoughtful and intentional approach, such as the inclusion of stakeholders, modelers, and independent monitoring experts in the review process. Periodic systemwide reviews of monitoring should be incorporated into the work plan of RECOVER so that the monitoring program remains effective and appropriate in the years ahead.
LAKE OKEECHOBEE REGULATION
Lake Okeechobee is the last major component of water storage in the northern end of the South Florida ecosystem to be resolved, and its regulation schedule has significant implications for conditions throughout the ecosystem. The lake regulation schedule will soon be revisited to determine new operational rules. The completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation project could enable higher water levels to be held within Lake Okeechobee, although the feasibility of higher water levels must still be determined through an updated risk assessment. The regulation schedule revision process also considers tradeoffs among the ecological conditions in the lake, the Northern Estuaries, and the Everglades, as well as water supply and flood management. Hydrologic and ecological modeling tools have been developed to assess potential benefits and impacts from various regulation schedules on the lake and broader region. To inform that process and in response to frequent questions about the impacts of increased water levels on the ecology of Lake Okeechobee, the committee summarized the latest information and identified key research needs to help inform the within-lake portion of the tradeoff analysis.
The magnitude of ecological impacts in the lake from additional storage will depend upon antecedent ecological conditions. Improved understanding of these dependencies could be used to inform real-time operations to reduce adverse ecological effects and provide more flexibility given appropriate risk tolerance in lake management. A new regulatory schedule that stores more
water in Lake Okeechobee would require tradeoffs between in-lake ecological impacts and ecological and water supply benefits throughout the South Florida ecosystem. Past research has shown that ecological conditions in the lake are adversely affected by high water levels (above ~16 feet) and multiple consecutive years without low water levels (~12 feet). Additionally, reversals of water level recession during spring nesting can adversely affect wading birds and snail kites. However, there are considerable uncertainties about high water impacts to submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) and near-shore emergent vegetation, which provide important ecological services in the lake, because many of the effects of high water depend on antecedent conditions. For example, high stage effects on SAV vary depending upon whether the plants are healthy and mature, stressed, or just recovering after a prior impact. Reducing those uncertainties and using that information to inform operations could reduce the ecological impacts associated with increased storage.
Adjustments to Lake Okeechobee monitoring and full integration of modeling tools would provide rigorous science-based information to support a regulation schedule review and real-time optimization of operations under any regulation schedule. Refinements to the ecological monitoring and adaptive management program could reduce critical uncertainties, inform lake regulation schedule planning, and enhance real-time lake operations. For example, moving from quarterly transect sampling of SAV to more frequent sampling at just a few representative sites might provide more actionable information and lead to a better understanding of the effects of antecedent conditions. Further, the Lake Okeechobee Environment Model is a tool to use in concert with regional hydrologic and ecological models to evaluate the implications of alternative regulation schedules and lake operations, particularly as new data become available to refine the model’s SAV component.
A CERP MID-COURSE ASSESSMENT: SOUND DECISION MAKING FOR THE FUTURE
The Everglades of 2050 and beyond will differ from what was originally envisioned when the CERP was developed. The original CERP plan was formulated based on a pre-drainage vision of the historical Everglades and the assumption that specific rainfall and temperature time series observed in the past captured the full range of variability expected throughout the 21st century. There is now ample evidence that the South Florida climate is changing. There is general consensus that temperatures will increase over time, although considerable uncertainty about future rainfall patterns remains. There is also compelling recent evidence that sea-level rise is accelerating. These changes will have profound
impacts on the South Florida ecosystem and the related challenges of providing flood protection and meeting future water and recreational demands.
CERP agencies should conduct a mid-course assessment that rigorously considers the future of the South Florida ecosystem. New information about climate variability, climate change, and sea-level rise in South Florida continues to emerge, and many of these changes will impact the capacity for the CERP to meet its goals. Although the SFWMD has begun to conduct these types of analyses for planning and management projects outside of the restoration, CERP agencies do not adequately account for these changes when planning projects, and they have not systematically analyzed these threats in the context of the CERP. Restoration is likely to create important benefits that increase the resilience of the ecosystem in the face of climate change, but these benefits have not been studied or quantified. A systemwide, program-level analysis should assess the resilience and robustness of the CERP to the changing conditions that will drive the Everglades of the future. A mid-course assessment should include systemwide modeling of interactions among both authorized and planned projects under scenarios of future possible climate and sea level–rise conditions. This assessment is essential to communicate the benefits of the CERP to stakeholders, guide project sequencing and investment decisions, and manage the restoration under changing conditions. Now that several major project planning efforts are nearing completion and the vision for CERP storage is largely developed, which will require decades to construct at current funding levels, the time is right for a mid-course assessment.
A science program focused on understanding the impacts of current and future stressors on the South Florida ecosystem is needed to ensure that CERP agencies have the latest scientific information and tools to successfully plan and implement the restoration program. This report has highlighted the ongoing research advances and science that are needed to address issues of vital importance for the long-term success of restoration investments, such as understanding peat collapse, saltwater intrusion, and the management of invasive species. Ensuring that investigative research and advances in tools and understanding are useful in a policy context requires a programmatic approach directly linked to the CERP effort, which may be best championed by an independent Everglades Lead Scientist empowered to coordinate and promote needed scientific advances.