Challenges and Opportunities for Everglades Restoration

Dr. Nick Aumen, Team Leader
Everglades Program Team
Everglades National Park

The largest and most expensive ecosystem restoration project on the planet is underway right in our backyard! We have irreversibly lost about 50% of the historical extent of the Everglades due to agricultural and urban development, and we are working hard to protect and restore what remains. The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is part of that remaining 50% – the last remaining portion of the northern Everglades – and is a precious part of a very unique and globally treasured wetland.

Cattails in the refuge

The federal government has assembled a team of scientists based at the Refuge to work on Everglades restoration, especially to protect the water quality of the Refuge and other federal resources, such as Everglades National Park. This team is known as the Everglades Program Team, and consists of senior-level aquatic scientists. These scientists are from both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, and both of these agencies are under the U.S. Department of Interior. That is why you may meet a National Park Service scientist working at the National Wildlife Refuge. We are housed in the original administration building, located across Lee Road from the pavilion overlooking the Marsh Trail. With typical governmental imagination, our building is called "Building 5"!

Our team is focused on protecting and restoring the water quality of the Everglades. The Everglades, including the Refuge, is faced with multiple threats. A century of efforts to control Mother Nature by digging canals and building levees has resulted in severe changes in hydrology – the depth, timing, and distribution of water flow in the Everglades. In addition, humans have introduced plants and animals that are not native to the Everglades, and they sometimes out-compete the native plants and animals. Human development is encroaching on all sides of the Everglades, disrupting the natural flow of water in these wetlands and decreasing important habitat for Everglades wildlife. Climate change poses significant threats, with the possibility of sea level rise, temperature changes, and decreases in rainfall. Finally, human activities in the drainage basin of the Everglades have resulted in poor water quality in some locations, which in turn affects Everglades plants and animals.

Unimpacted refuge

Protecting the water quality of the Refuge and the rest of the Everglades is a big challenge. The Everglades – a relatively young ecosystem of about 5,000 years – evolved under very low levels of nutrients. The wetland plants and animals thrive under this low-nutrient condition, and result in the beautiful Everglades landscape. While nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are essential for life to occur, too much nutrients can cause undesirable changes in the Everglades. One nutrient in particular – phosphorus – has increased in the Refuge due to stormwater runoff from agricultural fields to the north. Cattail, which is a wetland plant native to the Everglades, takes over under these high-nutrient conditions, out-competes other native plants, and makes the wetland habitat unsuitable for other desirable plants and animals. The cattails can become so dense that fish become hard to locate and capture by the wading birds that depend on them to feed their young.

The nutrient enrichment and poor water quality became such a concern that the federal government sued the State of Florida in 1988 to enforce water quality protection laws already in place. The lawsuit was settled in 1991, and a federal court order – called a Consent Decree – was issued in 1992. This Consent Decree, still in effect today, mandates a number of water quality protection projects by the state to protect the Refuge and the Everglades from further water quality deterioration. One of these projects is Best Management Practices to be implemented by farmers upstream of the Refuge to reduce nutrients in stormwater runoff. Examples of these practices include more careful and decreased use of fertilizers, more storage of rain water on farm fields to reduce harmful stormwater discharges downstream, and vegetative buffer zones between farm fields and waterways. Another project is construction of vast wetlands built on former farm lands to clean water from the farms before the water reaches the Everglades. The Everglades Program Team works hard to track progress of water quality protection efforts under this Consent Decree, and the team serves as technical advisors to government managers and policy-makers. This water quality litigation is one of the longest duration federal environmental lawsuits in US history.

A recent opportunity to better protect Everglades water quality occurred last year (2008) when Governor Charlie Crist announced the State's intention to purchase up to 187,000 acres of agricultural lands from the U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the major agricultural land owners north and west of the Refuge. This acquisition, which still is under negotiation, offers the potential to build more constructed wetlands to clean water, along with the potential to store more water from Lake Okeechobee to be sent south to the rest of the Everglades. The southern Everglades, including Everglades National Park, needs more clean water to protect and restore this portion of the historic Everglades that remains. Perhaps some of these constructed wetlands may help the Refuge as well.

This plan is examined in detail on the website of the South Florida Water Management District.

I hope that this information helps you to better understand the hard work that is being done by Refuge and Park staff to protect America's Everglades, and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.