The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is putting the finishing touches on the most expensive environmental restoration ever undertaken: a $7.5 billion effort to undo the damage the corps did decades ago when it drained Florida's Everglades.
The wilderness that once was the liquid heart of Florida has been dying of thirst since the late 1960s, when the corps completed a 1,600-mile long network of canals that created cities and farms out of saw-grass marshes, but deprived the Everglades of its life-giving water.
The corps' original $252 million project cut water flow to parts of the Everglades to one-fifth what nature intended, and the water stays on the land for months instead of years. Now the wading birds that once made the region famous are mostly gone, with some species down to about one-twentieth of their numbers before the swamp was drained.
Congress has ordered the corps to see what it can do to reverse the process. After two years of work, state and federal scientists have come up with a plan that tries to balance the needs of egrets and panthers with the water demands of a booming South Florida population expected to reach 15 million by the year 2050.
The result "is the biggest ecologicalrestoration project on the face of the planet," said Stuart Strahl, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades restoration office, and an enthusiastic backer of the idea. "We think it's the most important proposal in the country right now. It's going to set precedents all around the world."
The plan, being fine-tuned this week, relies on some high-technology techniques that have never been tried on a grand scale before, but that might solve the water woes of cities around the world.
For example, corps engineers propose digging as many as 100 wells, each thousands of feet deep, just south of Lake Okeechobee in the middle of the state. The wells would capture water that falls during the rainy season and store it deep underground, where it would wait to be pumped into parched throats, human and wild, during the dry season. Corps scientists say only a few cities have tried the technique, digging one or two wells apiece.
The plan would also take back 40,000 to 60,000 acres of the 750,000-acre farm belt created by the original drainage project, using that land to store water in reservoirs up to 20 feet deep. But it will not do what many purists wanted -- rip out the levees and canals that subdivide the 1.5 million-acre Everglades and restore the sheet of water that once flowed across the lower half of the state.
Natural or managed system?
Ecologist John Ogden of the South Florida Water Management District, a member of the team that drafted the plan, said the scientists found themselves facing a hard truth: Reduced in size by more than half and blocked by development, the remnant Everglades probably can't function without human help
"There's a desire to remove all the structures and let 'er rip, let it flow," Ogden said. "But these huge uncertainties about how it's going to respond say to us that we really can't eliminate all our management options right now."
That worries the experts at Everglades National Park, which lies at the southern tip of the peninsula. It is thus the last place to get whatever water is available.
"The fundamental debate is, do we want a natural system or a highly managed system?" said Robert F. Johnson, director of the park's research center. "The park prefers the first, while the corps has chosen the second. I would argue we've had 40 years of the second, and look where it's gotten us."
Russ Reed, director of Everglades restoration planning for the corps' Jacksonville district, said engineers are still looking for ways to benefit the environment by ripping out canals and levees. "The best plan is much better than what we have now, but it still falls short," he said. "We're going to see if we can do better."
Restoring the Glades would take at least 15 years. The corps proposal will be officially presented for public comment in October, then go to Congress in July 1999.
If the state and federal governments approve the design and agree to split the cost, construction could begin early in the next century.
Will it work? No one is sure, since nothing like it ever has been tried. But scientists like Ogden say nature's resilience convinces them that some part of the Everglades can be saved.
Some changes may be irreversible, Ogden said, "but a lot of people feel it's a pretty tough system, that if it was as fragile as some people thought, it would be gone by now.
"But it's still out there, sort of ghosting itself. And that makes us think there's a chance."
Pub Date: 6/16/98