This chapter sets the stage for the seventh of this committee’s biennial assessments of restoration progress in the South Florida ecosystem. Background for understanding the project is provided through descriptions of the ecosystem decline, restoration goals, the needs of a restored ecosystem, and the specific activities of the restoration project.
The Everglades once encompassed about 3 million acres of slow-moving water and associated biota that stretched from Lake Okeechobee in the north to the Florida Keys in the south (Figures 1-1a and 2-1a). The conversion of the Everglades wilderness into an area of high agricultural productivity and cities was a dream of 19th-century investors, and projects begun between 1881 and 1894 affected the flow of water in the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee. These early projects included dredging canals in the Kissimmee River Basin and constructing a channel connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. By the late 1800s, more than 50,000 acres north and west of the lake had been drained and cleared for agriculture (Grunwald, 2006). In 1907, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward created the Everglades Drainage District to construct a vast array of ditches, canals, dikes, and “improved” channels. By the 1930s, Lake Okeechobee had a second outlet, through the St. Lucie Canal, leading to the Atlantic Ocean, and 440 miles of other canals altered the hydrology of the Everglades (Blake, 1980). After hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 resulted in disastrous flooding from Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) replaced the small berm that bordered the southern edge of the lake with the massive Herbert Hoover Dike, which was eventually expanded in the 1960s to encircle the lake. The hydrologic end product of these drainage activities was the drastic reduction of natural water
storage within the system and an increased susceptibility to drought and desiccation in the southern reaches of the Everglades (NRC, 2005).
After further flooding in 1947 and increasing demands for improved agricultural production and flood management for the expanding population centers on the southeast Florida coast, the U.S. Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project. This project provided flood management and urban and agricultural water supply by straightening 103 miles of the meandering Kissimmee River, expanding the Herbert Hoover Dike, constructing a levee along the eastern boundary of the Everglades to prevent flows into the southeastern urban areas, establishing the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee, and creating a series of Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) in the remaining space between the lake and Everglades National Park (Light and Dineen, 1994). The eastern levee isolated about 100,000 acres of the Everglades ecosystem, making it available for development (Lord, 1993). In total, urban and agricultural development have reduced the Everglades to about one-half its pre-drainage area (see Figure 1-1b; Davis and Ogden, 1994)
and have contaminated its waters with chemicals such as phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfur, mercury, and pesticides. Associated drainage and flood management structures, including the C&SF Project, have diverted large quantities of water directly east and west to the northern estuaries, thereby reducing the dominantly southward freshwater flows and natural water storage that defined the ecosystem (see Figure 2-1b).
The profound hydrologic alterations were accompanied by many changes in the biotic communities in the ecosystem, including reductions and changes in the composition, distribution, and abundance of the populations of wading birds. Today, the federal government has listed 78 plant and animal species in South Florida as threatened or endangered, with many more included on state lists. Some distinctive Everglades habitats, such as custard apple forests and peripheral wet prairie, have disappeared altogether, while other habitats are severely reduced in area (Davis and Ogden, 1994; Marshall et al., 2004). Approximately 1 million acres are contaminated with mercury from atmospheric deposition (McPherson and Halley, 1996; Orem et al., 2011). Phosphorus from agricultural runoff has impacted water quality in large portions of the Everglades and has been particularly problematic in Lake Okeechobee (Flaig and Reddy, 1995). The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, including parts of the Indian River Lagoon, have been greatly altered by high and extremely variable freshwater discharges that bring nutrients and contaminants and disrupt salinity regimes (Doering, 1996; Doering and Chamberlain, 1999).
At least as early as the 1920s, private citizens were calling attention to the degradation of the Florida Everglades (Blake, 1980). However, by the time Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s classic book The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947 (the same year that Everglades National Park was dedicated), the South Florida ecosystem had already been altered extensively. Beginning in the 1970s, prompted by concerns about deteriorating conditions in Everglades National Park and other parts of the South Florida ecosystem, the public, as well as the federal and state governments, directed increased attention to the adverse ecological effects of the flood management and irrigation projects (Kiker et al., 2001; Perry, 2004). By the late 1980s it was clear that various minor corrective measures undertaken to remedy the situation were insufficient. As a result, a powerful political consensus developed among federal agencies, state agencies and commissions, Native American tribes, county governments, and conservation organizations that a large restoration effort was needed in the Everglades (Kiker et al., 2001). This recognition culminated in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), authorized by Congress in 2000, which builds on other ongoing restoration activities of the state and federal governments to create what was at the time the most ambitious restoration effort in the nation’s history.
RESTORATION GOALS FOR THE EVERGLADES
Several goals have been articulated for the restoration of the South Florida ecosystem, reflecting the various restoration programs. The South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force (hereafter, simply the Task Force), an intergovernmental body established to facilitate coordination in the restoration effort, has three broad strategic goals: (1) “get the water right,” (2) “restore, preserve, and protect natural habitats and species,” and (3) “foster compatibility of the built and natural systems” (SFERTF, 2000). These goals encompass, but are not limited to, the CERP. The Task Force works to coordinate and build consensus among the many non-CERP restoration initiatives that support these broad goals.
The goal of the CERP, as stated in the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA 2000), is “restoration, preservation, and protection of the South Florida Ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” The Programmatic Regulations (33 CFR § 385.3) that guide implementation of the CERP further clarify this goal by defining restoration as “the recovery and protection of the South Florida ecosystem so that it once again achieves and sustains those essential hydrological and biological characteristics that defined the undisturbed South Florida ecosystem.” These defining characteristics include a large areal extent of interconnected wetlands, extremely low concentrations of nutrients in freshwater wetlands, sheet flow, healthy and productive estuaries, resilient plant communities, and an abundance of native wetland animals (DOI and USACE, 2005). Although development has permanently reduced the areal extent of the Everglades ecosystem, the CERP hopes to recover many of the Everglades’ original characteristics and natural ecosystem processes in the remnant Everglades. At the same time, the CERP is charged to maintain levels of flood protection (as of 2000) and was designed to provide for other water-related needs, including water supply (DOI and USACE, 2005).
Although the CERP contributes to each of the Task Force’s three goals, it focuses primarily on restoring the hydrologic features of the undeveloped wetlands remaining in the South Florida ecosystem, on the assumption that improvements in ecological conditions will follow. Originally, “getting the water right” had four components—quality, quantity, timing, and distribution. However, the hydrologic properties of flow, encompassing the concepts of direction, velocity, and discharge, have been recognized as an important component of getting the water right that had previously been overlooked (NRC, 2003c; SCT, 2003). Numerous studies have supported the general approach to getting the water right (Davis and Ogden, 1994; NRC, 2005; SSG, 1993), although it is widely recognized that recovery of the native habitats and species in South Florida may require restoration efforts in addition to getting the water right, such as
The goal of ecosystem restoration can seldom be the exact re-creation of some historical or preexisting state because physical conditions, driving forces, and boundary conditions usually have changed and are not fully recoverable. Rather, restoration is better viewed as the process of assisting the recovery of a degraded ecosystem to the point where it contains sufficient biotic and abiotic resources to continue its functions without further assistance in the form of energy or other resources from humans (NRC, 1996; Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group, 2004). The term ecosystem rehabilitation may be more appropriate when the objective is to improve conditions in a part of the South Florida ecosystem to at least some minimally acceptable level that allows the restoration of the larger ecosystem to advance. However, flood management remains a critical aspect of the CERP design because improving hydrology and sheet flow in extensive wetland areas has the potential, through seepage, to flood adjacent urban and agricultural areas. Artificial storage will be required to replace the lost natural storage in the system (NRC, 2005), and groundwater management also requires attention to boundaries between developed and natural areas. For these and other reasons, even when the CERP is complete, it will require large inputs of energy and human effort to operate and maintain pumps, stormwater treatment areas, canals and levees, and reservoirs, and to continue to manage non-native species. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the CERP does not envision ecosystem restoration or rehabilitation that returns the ecosystem to a state where it can “manage itself.”
The broad CERP goals should be interpreted in the context of the complex Everglades ecosystem in order to guide restoration efforts. Early restoration was motivated by ambitious albeit generalized expectations for the ecosystem. For example, the CERP conceptual plan, also called the Yellow Book (USACE and SFWMD, 1999), stated: “At all levels in the aquatic food chains, the numbers of such animals as crayfish, minnows, sunfish, frogs, alligators, herons, ibis, and otters, will markedly increase.” Currently the goals for the restoration upon which policy makers agree (USACE et al., 2007) are largely qualitative, indicating a desired direction of change for a number of indicators, without a quantitative objective, providing no clear expectation of how the success of restoration efforts should collectively be assessed. Continued investment in Everglades restoration proceeds based on improving the current undesirable state of the system rather than toward a specific set of quantitative characteristics desired for the future South Florida ecosystem.
An additional factor challenging the ability of the restoration efforts to meet the “essential hydrological and biological characteristics that defined
the undisturbed South Florida ecosystem” is ongoing climate change, including changes in precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, and ocean warming. Not only did irreversible changes occur since the 19th century, but also, since the development of the CERP, sea levels have risen approximately 6-7 cm and future projections call for further increases of as much as 2 meters in South Florida in the 21st century (NOAA, 2017).
Implicit in the understanding of ecosystem restoration is the recognition that natural systems are self-designing and dynamic, and therefore it is not possible to know in advance exactly what can or will be achieved. Thus, ecosystem restoration proceeds in the face of scientific uncertainty and must consider a range of possible future conditions. NASEM (2016) discusses the challenges to restoration goals arising from major changes that have occurred since the inception of the CERP in 1999, and further consideration of these issues is provided in this report.
What Restoration Requires
Restoring the South Florida ecosystem to a desired ecological landscape requires reestablishment of critical processes that sustain its functioning. Although getting the water right is the oft-stated and immediate goal, the restoration ultimately aims to restore the distinctive characteristics of the historical ecosystem to the remnant Everglades (DOI and USACE, 2005). Getting the water right is a means to that end, not the end itself. The hydrologic and ecologic characteristics of the historical Everglades serve as general restoration goals for a functional (albeit reduced in size) Everglades ecosystem. The first Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress identified five critical components of Everglades restoration (NRC, 2007):
- Enough water storage capacity combined with operations that allow for appropriate volumes of water to support healthy estuaries and the return of sheet flow through the Everglades ecosystem while meeting other demands for water;
- Mechanisms for delivering and distributing the water to the natural system in a way that resembles historical flow patterns, affecting volume, depth, velocity, direction, distribution, and timing of flows;
- Barriers to eastward seepage of water so that higher water levels can be maintained in parts of the Everglades ecosystem without compromising the current levels of flood protection of developed areas as required by the CERP;
- Methods for securing water quality conditions compatible with restoration goals for a natural system that was inherently extremely nutrient poor, particularly with respect to phosphorus; and
- Retention, improvement, and expansion of the full range of habitats by
preventing further losses of critical wetland and estuarine habitats, and by protecting lands that could usefully be part of the restored ecosystem.
If these five critical components of restoration are achieved and the difficult problem of invasive species can be managed, then the basic physical, chemical, and biological processes that created the historical Everglades can once again work to create and sustain a functional mosaic of biotic communities that resemble what was distinctive about the historical Everglades albeit of a reduced scale.
The history of the Everglades and ongoing global climate change will make replication of the pre-drainage system impossible. Because of the historical changes that have occurred through engineered structures, urban development, introduced species, and other factors, the paths taken by the ecosystem and its components in response to restoration efforts will not retrace the paths taken to reach current conditions. End results will also often differ from the historical system as climate change and sea-level rise, permanently established invasive species, and other factors have moved the ecosystem away from its historical state (Hiers et al., 2012) and will continue to change the restored system in the future. The specific nature and extent of the functional mosaic thus depends on not only the degree to which the five critical components can be achieved but also future precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, marine incursion into estuaries and coastal wetlands, as well as continued investment in water and ecological management.
Even if the restored system does not exactly replicate the historical system, or reach all the biological, chemical, and physical targets, the reestablishment of natural processes and dynamics should result in a viable and valuable Everglades ecosystem under current conditions. The central principle of ecosystem management is to provide for the natural processes that historically shaped an ecosystem, because ecosystems are characterized by the processes that regulate them. How the reestablished processes interact with future changes within and external to the system will determine the future character of the ecosystem, its species, and communities.
Several restoration programs, including the largest of the initiatives, the CERP, are now under way. The CERP often builds upon non-CERP activities (also called “foundation projects”), many of which are essential to the effectiveness of the CERP. The following section provides a brief overview of the CERP and some of the major non-CERP activities.
Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan
WRDA 2000 authorized the CERP as the framework for modifying the C&SF Project. Considered a blueprint for the restoration of the South Florida ecosystem, the CERP is led by two organizations with considerable expertise managing the water resources of South Florida—the USACE, which built most of the canals and levees throughout the region, and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the state agency with primary responsibility for operating and maintaining this complicated water collection and distribution system.
The CERP conceptual plan (USACE and SFWMD, 1999) proposes major alterations to the C&SF Project in an effort to reverse decades of ecosystem decline. The Yellow Book includes approximately 50 major projects consisting of 68 project components to be constructed at a cost of approximately $16.4 billion (estimated in 2014 dollars, including program coordination and monitoring costs; USACE and DOI, 2016; Figure 2-2). Major components of the restoration plan focus on restoring the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of water for the South Florida ecosystem. The Yellow Book outlines the major CERP components, including the following:
- Conventional surface-water storage reservoirs. The Yellow Book includes plans for approximately 1.5 million acre-feet (AF) of storage, located north of Lake Okeechobee, in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee basins, in the EAA, and in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties.
- Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR). The Yellow Book proposes to provide substantial water storage through ASR, a highly engineered approach that would use a large number of wells built around Lake Okeechobee, in Palm Beach County, and in the Caloosahatchee Basin to store water approximately 1,000 feet below ground.
- In-ground reservoirs. The Yellow Book proposes additional water storage in quarries created by rock mining.
- Stormwater treatment areas (STAs). The CERP contains plans for additional constructed wetlands that will treat agricultural and urban runoff water before it enters natural wetlands.1
1 Although some STAs are included among CERP projects, the USACE has clarified its policy on federal cost sharing for water quality features. A memo from the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) (USACE, 2007a) states: “Before there can be a Federal interest to cost share a WQ [water quality] improvement feature, the State must be in compliance with WQ standards for the current use of the water to be affected and the work proposed must be deemed essential to the Everglades restoration effort.” The memo goes on to state, “the Yellow Book specifically envisioned that the State would be responsible for meeting water quality standards.” However, the Secretary of the Army can recommend to Congress that projects features deemed “essential to Everglades restoration” be cost shared. In such cases, the state is responsible for 100 percent of the costs to treat water to state standards for its current use, and federal cost sharing is determined based on the additional treatment needed to meet the requirements of Everglades restoration (K. Taplin, USACE, personal communication, 2018).
- Seepage management. The Yellow Book outlines seepage management projects to prevent unwanted loss of water from the remnant Everglades through levees and groundwater flow. The approaches include adding impermeable barriers to the levees, installing pumps near levees to redirect lost water back into the Everglades, and holding water levels higher in undeveloped areas between the Everglades and the developed lands to the east.
- Removing barriers to sheet flow. The CERP includes plans for removing 240 miles of levees and canals, to reestablish shallow sheet flow of water through the Everglades ecosystem.
- Rainfall-driven water management. The Yellow Book includes operational changes in the water delivery schedules to the WCAs and Everglades National Park to mimic more natural patterns of water delivery and flow through the system.
- Water reuse and conservation. To address shortfalls in water supply, the Yellow Book proposes two advanced wastewater treatment plants so that the reclaimed water could be discharged to wetlands along Biscayne Bay or used to recharge the Biscayne aquifer.
The largest portion of the budget is devoted to storage projects and to acquiring the lands needed for them.
The modifications to the C&SF Project embodied in the CERP were originally expected to take more than three decades to complete (and will likely now take much longer), and to be effective they require a clear strategy for managing and coordinating restoration efforts. The Everglades Programmatic Regulations (33 CFR Part 385) state that decisions on CERP implementation are made by the USACE and the SFWMD (or any other local project sponsors), in consultation with the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Commerce, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and other federal, state, and local agencies (33 CFR Part 385).
WRDA 2000 endorses the use of an adaptive management framework for the restoration process, and the Programmatic Regulations (33 CFR §385.31[a]) formally establish an adaptive management program that will
assess responses of the South Florida ecosystem to implementation of the Plan; . . . [and] seek continuous improvement of the Plan based upon new information resulting from changed or unforeseen circumstances, new scientific and technical information, new or updated modeling; information developed
through the assessment principles contained in the Plan; and future authorized changes to the Plan. . . .
An interagency body called Restoration, Coordination, and Verification (RECOVER) was established early in the development of the CERP to ensure that sound science is used in the restoration. The RECOVER leadership group oversees the monitoring and assessment program that will evaluate the progress of the CERP toward restoring the natural system and will assess the need for changes to the plan through the adaptive management process (see also Chapter 5).
Non-CERP Restoration Activities
When Congress authorized the CERP in WRDA 2000, the SFWMD, the USACE, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were already implementing several activities intended to restore key aspects of the Everglades ecosystem. These non-CERP initiatives are critical to the overall restoration progress. In fact, the CERP’s effectiveness was predicated upon the completion of many of these projects, which include Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park (Mod Waters), C-111 South Dade, and state water quality treatment projects (see Figure 2-3). Several additional projects are also under way to meet the broad restoration goals for the South Florida ecosystem and associated legislative mandates. They include extensive water quality treatment initiatives and programs to establish best management practices (BMPs) to reduce nutrient loading. Recent progress on key non-CERP projects with critical linkages to the CERP are described in Chapter 3.
Major Developments and Changing Context Since 2000
Several major program-level developments have occurred since the CERP was launched that have affected the pace and focus of CERP efforts. In 2004, Florida launched Acceler8, a plan to hasten the pace of project implementation that was bogged down by the slow federal planning process (for further discussion of Acceler8, see NRC, 2007). Acceler8 originally included 11 CERP project components and 1 non-CERP project, and although the state was unable to complete all the original tasks, the program led to increased state investment and expedited project construction timelines for several CERP projects.
Operation of Lake Okeechobee has been modified twice since the CERP was developed in ways that have reduced total storage. In April 2000, the Water Supply and Environment (WSE) regulation schedule was implemented to reduce high-water impacts on the lake’s littoral zone and to reduce harmful high discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The regulation
schedule was changed again in 2008 to reduce the risk of failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike until the USACE could make critical repairs. This resulted in a loss of 564,000 AF of potential storage from the regional system (see NASEM, 2016).
In the years since the CERP was launched, the state of Florida has increasingly encouraged the use of alternative water supplies—including wastewater, stormwater, and excess surface water—to meet future water demands (e.g., FDEP, 2015). In 2006, the SFWMD passed the Lower East Coast Regional Water
Availability Rule, which caps groundwater withdrawals at 2006 levels, requiring urban areas to meet increased demand through a combination of conservation and alternative water supplies. In 2007, the Florida legislature mandated that ocean wastewater discharges in South Florida be eliminated and 60 percent of those discharges be reused by 2025 (Section 403.086, Florida Statute), representing approximately 180 million gallons per day of new water supply for the Lower East Coast. It remains unclear whether or how these new initiatives and mandates will affect the expectations for agricultural and urban water supply from the CERP, particularly because the capture of excess surface water is a key element of the CERP.
In 2010, EPA issued its court-ordered Amended Determination, which directed the state of Florida to correct deficiencies in meeting the narrative and numeric nutrient criteria in the Everglades Protection Area (EPA, 2010). In 2012, the state of Florida launched its Restoration Strategies Regional Water Quality Plan, which was approved by EPA and the court as an alternative means to address the Amended Determination. The state of Florida is currently in the process of constructing approximately 6,500 acres of new STAs and three flow equalization basins (116,000 AF; see Chapter 3). These water quality treatment improvements are designed so that water leaving the STAs will meet a new water quality–based effluent limit (WQBEL) to comply with the 10 parts per billion (ppb) total phosphorus water quality criterion for the Everglades Protection Area.2
Changing Understanding of Restoration Challenges
Much new knowledge has been gained since the launch of the CERP that provides a new understanding of restoration challenges and opportunities and informs future restoration planning and management. Considering the many advances in knowledge since 1999, climate change and sea-level rise are among the most significant. As outlined in NASEM (2016), changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration are expected to have substantial impacts on CERP outcomes. Downscaled precipitation projections remain uncertain and range from modest increases to sizable decreases for South Florida, and research continues locally and nationally to improve these projections. Sea-level rise is already affecting the distribution of Everglades habitats and causing coastal flooding in some
2 The WQBEL is a numeric discharge limit used to regulate permitted discharges from the STAs so as to not exceed a long-term geometric mean of 10 ppb within the Everglades Protection Area. This numeric value is now translated into a flow-weighted mean (FWM) total phosphorus (TP) concentration and applied to each STA discharge point, which now must meet the following: (1) the STAs are in compliance with WQBEL when the TP concentration of STA discharge point does not exceed an annual FWM of 13 ppb in more than 3 out of 5 years, and (2) annual FWM of 19 ppb in any water year (Fla. Stat. §373.4592; EPA, 2010; Leeds, 2014).
low-lying urban areas (see Chapter 6). CERP planners are now evaluating all future restoration benefits in the context of low, medium, and high sea-level rise projections, although NRC (2014) noted the need for greater consideration of climate change and sea-level rise in CERP project and program planning.
Since the CERP was developed, the significance of invasive species management on the success of restoration has also been recognized by the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and its member agencies.3 Non-native species constitute a substantial proportion of the current biota of the Everglades. The approximately 250 non-native plants species are about 16 percent of the regional flora (see NRC, 2014). South Florida has a subtropical climate with habitats that are similar to those from which many of the invaders originate, with relatively few native species in many taxa to compete with introduced ones. Some species, especially of introduced vascular plants and reptiles, have had dramatic effects on the structure and functioning of Everglades ecosystems, and necessitate aggressive management and early detection of new high-risk invaders to ensure that ongoing CERP efforts to get the water right allow native species to prosper instead of simply enhancing conditions for invasive species.
The Everglades ecosystem is one of the world’s ecological treasures, but for more than a century the installation of an extensive water management infrastructure has changed the geography of South Florida and has facilitated extensive agricultural and urban development. These changes have had profound ancillary effects on regional hydrology, vegetation, and wildlife populations. The CERP, a joint effort led by the state and federal governments and launched in 2000, seeks to reverse the general decline of the ecosystem. Since 2000, the legal context for the CERP and other major Everglades restoration efforts has evolved and the scientific understanding of Everglades restoration and its current and future stressors has expanded, and the programs continue to adapt. Implementation progress is discussed in detail in Chapter 3.