Sep. 28, 2006 Progress has been made in developing the scientific basis and management structures needed to support a massive effort to restore the Florida Everglades ecosystem, but some projects important to the restoration have experienced troubling delays, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report outlines an alternative approach that can help the initiative move forward even as it resolves remaining scientific uncertainties. A boost in the rate of federal spending also will be needed if the restoration of Everglades National Park and other projects are to be completed on schedule.
"Until there is greater progress in implementing restoration projects, the remaining Everglades landscape will continue to move away from the conditions that shaped the original ecosystem," said Wayne C. Huber, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a professor in the department of civil, construction, and environmental engineering at Oregon State University, Corvallis.
The report is the first in a congressionally mandated series of biennial evaluations of the progress being made by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a multibillion-dollar effort to restore historical water flows to the Everglades and return the ecosystem closer to its natural state, before it was transformed by drainage and by urban and agricultural development. Unveiled in 1999 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, CERP includes more than 40 major projects and is expected to take more than three decades to complete.
Some projects that are not part of CERP have made progress in the restoration process, the committee said, and these are promising signs of what CERP could achieve. A project to restore the Kissimmee River, for example, has shown positive changes in the ecosystem, including a higher density of wading birds and wetland plants. And stormwater treatment areas and the use of best management practices have helped reduce harmful levels of phosphorus in agricultural runoff. Progress also has been made in setting up a framework to support CERP, such as a plan to monitor and assess changes in the ecosystem caused by the plan's initiatives, and an "adaptive management" strategy that can help managers modify projects when needed.
However, no CERP projects have been completed to date, the report says. All 10 of the plan's components that were scheduled for completion by 2005 were delayed, as were six pilot projects originally scheduled for completion by 2004. Some reasons for delay -- such as the expansion of pilot projects to test water storage in underground aquifers -- address important uncertainties and are in the best interest of the overall restoration. But other sources of delay, including budget restrictions and a project planning and authorization process that can be stalled unnecessarily by scientific unknowns, are cause for concern because they affect projects needed to provide substantial benefits to the ecosystem. Efforts to re-establish historical water flows in Everglades National Park and the Water Conservation Areas to its north, for example, are behind the original schedule.
Federal funding will need to be significantly increased if these and other commitments in the plan are to meet schedule deadlines, the report says. The original cost estimate for CERP was $8.2 billion, but that has now grown to $10.9 billion because of inflation, program coordination expenses, and changes in the scope of the restoration. Further delays will add to this increase, in part because much land has yet to be acquired, and the cost of real estate in South Florida continues to escalate. Although CERP is a cost-sharing arrangement in which the federal government is meant to bear 50 percent of the expense -- leaving the other half to Florida's state and local governments -- planned federal spending from 2005 through 2009 is expected to account for only 21 percent of the total during that period. If federal spending does not increase, projects directed toward the federal government's primary interests, such as restoration of the national park, will continue to lag behind.
Because the state of Florida has invested more money in the restoration so far, greater progress has been made on certain CERP projects, such as the construction of reservoirs and restoration of Lake Okeechobee and estuaries. These initiatives are providing a valuable surge in the pace of project implementation, the report says. Still, it has yet to be determined how much the reservoirs will benefit the ecosystem, because decisions have not been made as to how the water will be divided among restoration and other uses.
Scientific uncertainties also are contributing to delays in planning and authorizing projects -- especially for projects that are complex or contentious, the report observes. But the restoration's scientific program is of high quality, the committee said, finding no uncertainty so significant that it should stand in the way of progress. To help move the effort forward while resolving critical scientific unknowns, CERP could in many cases use an "incremental adaptive restoration" approach. This method takes steps toward restoration that are large enough to secure some environmental benefits, but stops short of implementing an entire project at once. The approach would allow scientists and project managers to learn how the natural system will respond to interventions and guide the remainder of the project's implementation. It would support and complement CERP's existing adaptive management approach, the committee added.
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the South Florida Water Management District. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
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