Irma Stirs Fear of Setback to $16 Billion Everglades Restoration

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  • Largest project of its kind took a wallop from storm surges
  • Ecologists assessing impact to endangered turtle nests

For two decades Steve Davis has made it his life’s work to save the Florida Everglades.

Davis, a wetland ecologist with the Everglades Foundation, has been part of a push to restore millions of acres of marsh grasses and mangroves to their natural state. The effort, comprised of nearly six-dozen projects carrying an estimated price tag of $16 billion, is one of the largest environmental restorations ever undertaken.

A man points to a statue that once fronted a shop across the street from his house in Everglades City.

Photographer: Lesley Clark/Miami Herald/McClatchy/TNS via Getty Images

The plan was approved by Congress in 2000. But work has moved in fits and starts -- more than $2 billion has been spent so far -- and Davis was anxious last week to see if Hurricane Irma’s lashing winds and surging seas had setback what progress there has been. So he talked a pilot into taking him up to survey the damage.

"The smell of decay was noticeable from our altitude," Davis said in an interview. Extensive batches of sea grass, crucial for sustaining water quality and habitat for fish, could be seen dead and floating on the water. Mangrove trees were defoliated, the wind having stripped their leaves off.

Still, not all the news is bad. The massive amount of rain water from the storm now flowing through the area could be helping flush saltwater from the area’s sensitive estuaries. Previous storms, such as Hurricane Wilma in 2005, deposited nutrient-rich soil.

"I think there is potentially good from this," Davis said.

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Home to the elusive Florida panther, crocodiles, manatees and the state’s iconic pink flamingos, the Everglades make up much of Florida’s southern tip and is a World Heritage Site. Decades of development and farming have put the so-called River of Grass at risk. Climate change has raised the ocean’s waters, threatening it with the seeping influx of salt water and leading to higher storm surges.

Since Irma swung up through the Florida Keys and the state’s western coast, federal officials have struggled to access the 1.5 million acre Everglades National Park and assess the damage. Power and internet outages and trees blocking the main access road kept the park closed and largely cut off. Employees inside couldn’t even be contacted for days.

"The storm has passed and we are currently assessing damage to the park," an alert on the National Park Service’s website said. "It is not safe for re-entry at this time."

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The park service said storm surges of nearly nine feet hit the park. At Key Largo, there is extensive debris scattered throughout Florida Bay. "Numerous vessels are grounded or have been pushed into mangroves, causing severe damage," the park service said. 

Park workers had succeeded in opening one lane of the main road to the headquarters, allowing heavy equipment access to start their work inside.

"My sense is there is definitely damage," said Diana Umpierre, a representative for the Sierra Club’s Everglades Restoration Campaign. A friend told her that nests and eggs of several species of endangered turtles were washed away.

A child plays at his family’s flooded gas station in Everglades City.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Storm surges could have pushed in too much saltwater and eroded soil -- a valuable commodity when fighting sea level rise, said Evelyn Gaiser, an ecologist at Florida International University.

Anxiety also remains about the swollen Lake Okeechobee to the park’s north, and whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release water from it. "Those discharges will be polluted water and they will have detrimental effects on the ecosystem," said John Adornato, senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association’s Sun Coast Regional Office.

The park’s birds and animals have weathered hurricanes before using survival mechanisms like hunkering down in trees, low lying areas or other natural shelters, said Nicholas G. Aumen, a regional science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey, who runs an Everglades restoration program. Some animals will likely perish, but the impact is not likely to be catastrophic, he said.

Hurricanes Are Natural

"The first thing to remember is that hurricanes are a natural part of the landscape down here," he said in a phone interview.

Even before Irma, the Everglades’ once-pristine wetlands and mangroves had been fighting for survival, beset by development and farming that starved the wetlands of freshwater and inundated it with damaging phosphorous run off from the fertilizer used by the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding sugarcane farms.

In the face of those threats, Congress passed legislation in 2000 that created a plan made up of 68 different projects, pledging help to restore, preserve and protect the region. Projected to last 35 years, the nation’s largest hydrological restoration plan included the erection of flood-control walls keep the park’s urban boundaries from flooding and the construction of a massive canal to restore freshwater flows to the Florida Bay.

Still Fussing

"We could have done a lot by now but we are still fussing with it," said Harold Wanless, a University of Miami expert on sea-level rise. "By the time they figure it out they won’t have much Everglades left."

The projects have been slow going amid environmental litigation, land-use squabbles and perpetual study. Congressional gridlock has played a role as well. The 2000 legislation only authorized funding for a portion of the projects. 

A report issued earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences found that the pace of funding remains slower than expected and the cost of the projects are greater than initially estimated, meaning the efforts could take 60 years, not 35.

"What I hope is that this expedites these projects," Adornato said of the storm.

As of now, Davis says he is cautiously optimistic that Irma’s damage has been manageable. But he plans to keep his eye on things.

"The Everglades has experienced these types of disturbances in the past and recovered," he said. "In addition to being a beautiful landscape, it’s also a formidable defense."

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