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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Restoring the "River of Grass"

Air Date: Week of

Amy Green is the Florida Correspondent with Inside Climate News and the author of a book on the Everglades called “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar.” (Photo: Courtesy of Amy Green)

Extensive draining and channeling of the Everglades ecosystem has led to toxic algae blooms and land loss in Florida, so now a huge restoration effort is attempting to reverse some of those human caused consequences. But environmental groups have raised concerns about the design of the sixteen square mile reservoir at the heart of the project. Inside Climate News reporter Amy Green joins Host Jenni Doering to explain.


O’NEILL: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.

Only half of the historic Everglades ecosystem remains today, and over 70% of its natural water flow has been disrupted. That’s created water quality problems, toxic algae blooms, and land loss on the coast of Everglades National Park at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. So, restoring the Everglades is one of the key priorities for many Floridians. At the heart of this restoration effort is a massive new 16-square-mile reservoir that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began constructing in February 2023 and expects to complete around 2030. Adjacent to the reservoir, a stormwater treatment area that’s nearly complete will use aquatic plants like cattails to clean nutrient pollution out of the water system. These projects have been in the works for decades and they’re a core focus of the current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But even as construction of the reservoir continues, some environmental groups are raising concerns about the project design and whether it will be able to sufficiently clean up and restore the “river of grass.” Here from Orlando to tell us more is Amy Green, the Florida Correspondent for our partner Inside Climate News and the author of the 2021 book “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar.” Welcome to Living on Earth Amy!

GREEN: I'm happy to be here.

DOERING: So, can you first describe for us this river of grass and why it's so much bigger than the Everglades National Park itself?

GREEN: I think I would begin by saying the Everglades is Florida's most important freshwater resource. It's a watershed that encompasses much of the peninsula. And historically, most of the peninsula was under water. A lot of that water today has been drained to make way for growth and development. Today that watershed begins in Central Florida with the headwaters of the Kissimmee River which flows into Lake Okeechobee. And then from there, the water flows south into Everglades National Park, although the system has been radically altered. Historically, Floridians, they thought they were making the Everglades better. They thought that the Everglades in its natural state was this dismal swamp. And so, they thought by draining the Everglades, they thought they could reclaim that land for growth and development, and especially for agriculture. And it now is managed and sustained through a vast network of some of the most complex water management infrastructure in the world.

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a state budget with $1.6 billion for the Everglades and water quality. (Photo: Anthony DiLaura, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DOERING: So, I understand now we've learned about the consequences of those actions. And can you tell me about what projects are trying to restore the Everglades at this point?

GREEN: Right. Well, there is this massive effort underway in Central and South Florida to restore the Everglades. It was signed into law in 2000, by former President Bill Clinton. And it's one of the most ambitious attempts at environmental restoration in human history. And this is another series of infrastructure projects. The infrastructure that was constructed there beginning in the 1950s and the 1960s, at that time, the goal was to control you know, the Everglades. And now the goal is to restore the Everglades and reclaim key historic functions like water storage, flow and water quality. The “river of grass” has been so radically altered, that much of the flow of water today is east and west from Lake Okeechobee, rather than south through those sawgrass marshes at the lower end of the peninsula. So, Everglades National Park is kind of last in line for you know, that flow of fresh water. And a lot of times the park just, you know, isn't getting enough. And so, a big part of Everglades restoration is to restore that historic flow south.

DOERING: So, tell me about this big Everglades reservoir and what are its aims. And why is it controversial?

GREEN: Right. Well, I would say this project is one of the most controversial Everglades restoration projects. But this is one of the biggest projects in Everglades restoration. And the plans call for, you know, just a massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, that's aimed at conveying more water south and cleaning the water, improving the water quality. Governor DeSantis and others describe this reservoir as the “crown jewel” of Everglades restoration and a key strategy in addressing some water quality problems that have especially developed in the past decade or so in Florida, which are toxic algae blooms. And there are environmental groups who have raised concerns about the reservoir’s design; this reservoir has always been a part of, you know, the plans for Everglades restoration. And this reservoir has gone through a lot of different incarnations as you know, as a result of different political and economic forces, you know, that have swirled in the state since 2000. So, I think everyone agrees that the reservoir is necessary. I think the concerns that are being raised have to do with the reservoirs design.

The Everglades Reservoir aims to improve water quality and restore the historic flow of water. (Photo: Parsa Mahmoudi, Unsplash License)

DOERING: You mentioned that this reservoir is designed to convey water south and clean up the water. So, can you tell me more about the problems that some of these scientists and groups have with this current plan?

GREEN: I think the main concerns are that the reservoir is too deep, and that it will not clean the water to standards. The Everglades historically was a very shallow system. And so the environmental groups point out that for the reservoir to be, you know, as deep as 23 feet, it's not the way water moved through the Everglades naturally. There's also concerns that the design will not convey enough water south and that it does not take climate change and precipitation changes into account. And this summer, there's a lot of concerns about severe toxic algae blooms, again, because we just had Hurricane Ian dump and extraordinary amount of rain in the state. And as that water has drained into waterways like Lake Okeechobee, it carries with it a large amount of nutrient pollution. And when that lake level gets high, that water is discharged to delicate estuaries. And that's an opportunity for that toxic algae to spread.

DOERING: And one of these environmental groups that have some questions about this reservoir design, what do they have in mind?

GREEN: They have pushed for a reservoir that would be larger, but shallower, and that would involve more land acquisition. But that has been complicated because the reservoir is in a location that is heavily agriculture, and the primary crop there is sugar. And in Florida sugar growers are very powerful political players in state and national politics and the sugar growers have pushed back against giving up land for you know, this Everglades project.

DOERING: So, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that he's running for president in 2024, for the Republican nomination. How do you think these issues of water quality and environmental restoration play into his campaign at all? And how might they indicate how he might approach those kinds of issues nationally?

GREEN: Well, the reason I've been looking into DeSantis’s record on toxic algae recently is because, you know, again, that was, you know, one of the most important issues of his gubernatorial campaign. And there's a lot of headlines swirling right now around DeSantis, as he is engaged in culture war issues, like you know, LGBTQ issues and issues involving people of color. And I kind of just was interested in getting back to one of the, you know, first campaign promises he made, you know, as a gubernatorial candidate in Florida, which was on toxic algae and water quality.

There are concerns an excessively deep reservoir could lead to an increase in toxic algae blooms. (Photo: Drew Waddell, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DOERING: Amy, how much is climate change a focus of the Florida government and Ron DeSantis, for that matter?

GREEN: Ron DeSantis has implemented a program called Resilient Florida. And this is a program that's aimed at fortifying infrastructure against the rising seas and more damaging hurricanes of climate change. He has received quite a bit of criticism from some of the environmental groups who say that while it's great, the governor is investing money in these important issues, he hasn't really done anything to address the main cause behind climate change, which is fossil fuel emissions. And he hasn't really done very much to address those emissions in Florida and transition the state toward clean energy.

DOERING: Amy, what do you think next steps might look like for Everglades restoration?

GREEN: Well, Everglades restoration is really at this, you know, kind of exciting, pivotal point right now, because these projects now are beginning construction, and a few of them are reaching completion. And as these projects are completed, it'll be watching to see how the different projects function together. And already we're seeing success, a major restoration of the Kissimmee River, finished construction kind of recently, and we know that restoration works. It's just it's very complicated. It takes a lot of money, and it's going to take a long time, and it will be many decades before these projects are complete. And there's always going to have to be someone, you know, kind of running the system because the Everglades no longer isn't, is a natural one. And so, work in the system will continue for many, many years.

DOERING: Amy Green is the Florida correspondent for Inside Climate News and the author of the 2021 book "Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar." Thank you so much, Amy.

GREEN: It's a pleasure talking with you.



Inside Climate News | “In the Everglades a Clash Portrayed as ‘Science vs. Politics’ Pits a Leading Scientist Against His Former Employer”

Learn more about the Everglades Reservoir’s Progress

Palm Beach Post | “Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir breaks ground in western Palm Beach County”

Learn more about Amy Green


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